The tenant at the top of the stairs must have been in his mid to late twenties, and of all the tenants, he was the most intriguing. My brother and I used to race to the top of the stairs and back down when we were little—he was nine, I was six—and it must have bothered Jackson at some point, but he never complained. For some reason he always left his door opened,and the staircase and the hallway below it were always juggling plumes of cigarette smoke. Whenever my brother got to the top of the staircase, he was far enough ahead of me to sneak a glance into Jackson’s doorway without having to worry about me catching up, and I was usually far enough behind to take the same glance at the top, knowing that I could not catch my brother anyways. We both had the same observations of Jackson and his room: Jackson was usually on the phone, he was always in just his boxer shorts, and an opened notebook and a pen were always in the same place on his desk. They never moved. Jackson seemed like a lonely man. When he first moved in, he had an old dog named Titus who never moved. He may have been dead long before Jackson got rid of him. The dog was only there for the sake of loneliness. While Jackson apparently always had people to talk to on the phone, he never had any visitors.
The race to the top of the stairs was not the safest activity for us children, especially because the stair case was a steep, long, narrow hallway and had no railing alongside of it, but the house was no ideal place to grow up, and so the only activities for us were to spy on other tenants and race to the top of the staircase and back. Eventually, as we got a little older (seven and ten), the race on the stairs became less about the race and more about Jackson. We knew almost nothing about him and child curiosity never goes without being itched a bit, so we continued the races with the purpose of trying to find out more. All we knew was his dead dog’s name, that he needed a notebook, needed a phone, needed his door opened, and did not need much clothing. He was a beautiful man with a firmly cut torso and beautiful, bright green eyes. I sometimes wondered why he didn’t have a wife, but for some reason it felt wrong of me to wonder that. We could never pick up information about him from his phone conversations. We wondered why he always left the door opened.
My brother died when he was eleven in a drowning accident and I did not go to the top of the stairs for a couple of weeks. I did not feel my pain, loneliness, and loss as acutely as I would a couple of years later when my brother turned into a sometimes vague, sometimes vivid memory of a more exciting life, but I did notice some dramatic shifts in the way I saw the world and the way I saw the tenement house. I noticed how boring the other tenants’ lives were. I noticed how brown the whole house seemed—the walls, the windows and even the air all seemed brown. The world was so much duller without someone to beat me to the top of the stairs, but one morning I went back up. The door was opened and Jackson was still sleeping. I sat down on the top step and rested my chin on the heel of my palm. There was a pebble by my foot, and with my other hand I took it and carved meaningless shapes into the wood. It took me a few moments to realize that I was waiting for Jackson to wake up. I changed positions many times—got comfortable, got bored, fell asleep, woke up, coughed on purpose to try to wake him, but it wasn’t until noon that I heard him hacking up phlegm and getting out of bed. I pretended I did not care but after a few minutes, I could feel him two or three feet away from me by the door. Good looking men are not attractive in a romantic way, but they can make one feel soothed and calm. A beautiful man’s face is a sight of solace, and Jackson certainly had a beautiful face. He was perfectly put together. I knew that he was standing by me and I did not intend to give him my full attention until he said something, but he would not say anything. After a long and awkward moment had passed, I looked up at him.
“What are ya doin kid?” he said. These were the first words he had ever spoken to me. He was in his boxer shorts. “How long ya been sittin there?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I said.
“Well, how long are ya gonna stay there?” he said.
“I dunno,” I said.
“Sorry about your brother,” he said.
My head jumped quickly and I said,
“Who said anything about my brother?”
“Woah, I didn’t mean to uh—well anyway, I’m sorry. Bad things ought ta happen now and again, I guess.”
After another anxious silence, he said,
“Hey, listen kid, are you busy?”
“You wanna do me a favor?”
“I dunno,” I said, but desperately wanted to do him a favor.
“I’ll let you get yourself a soda if you pick me up a pack of cigarettes at the general store.”
He gave me the money, told me to get Camel 99’s, and sent me to the store.
I did the chore and got myself a Coke, and then came back to the house and marched up the stairs. When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw that Jackson was on the phone. I stood in the doorway, waiting for him to turn around and on a deeper level, waiting for him to get off the phone. He finally turned, rushed over, took the cigarettes and the change, and thanked me in a dismissive sort of way.
The next morning I came back and we repeated it and when I came back, again, he was on the phone. It was the same the next day. It was consistent enough for me to assume that this was the same person he was talking to every day. I wanted to ask him but I thought it might be a girl, and as far as I knew at that age, girls were a secret. Every morning after I took the cigarettes and the change, I stood waiting, wondering if he would ever end his conversation to come talk to me, but I could only wait so long. I wondered if he liked me or if he was distracted by his phone girlfriend and just wanted someone to get his cigarettes. Sometimes I tried to eaves drop on his conversations, but he was discussing people, places and things that I did not know about.
This became a routine. Every morning I would go to the top of the stairs, look into the smoke stained room, and then he would wake up and send me to go get his cigarettes. The man who owned the general store was Greek and didn’t know much English. He may also not have known that it’s illegal to sell cigarettes to minors, or simply not cared, but every day when I put the pack on the counter he would say “You kids! You smoke too much,” and I would say, “But they’re not for me, they’re for my friend,” and waving his hand at me, he would say, “Agh!” and turn away. I always thought of things to say to Jackson on my way to the house and on my way up the stairs but almost every time he was on the phone, and the couple of times that he wasn’t, I was too nervous to speak to him. I needed to figure out how I could get his attention. At first, after I came back with his cigarettes, I would sit down on that top step and see if he would look over or cut his call short to speak to me, but I got nothing more out of that than confused glances and second hand smoke. Then, one day, I devised what I thought was a brilliant plan. On the way back from the store, I opened his pack and took one cigarette out, but when I gave it to him, he did not notice, so the next day I took two. He noticed, looked at me oddly, but continued talking into the phone. The next day I took three and this time, he looked at me suspiciously and said into the phone, “Hey, listen, I’m gonna have to call you back,” and hung up. At first, I was excited that my plan had worked, but that excitement quickly changed. I did not know him, did not know his temper or how he treated people, and did not know how he would handle cigarette thievery. I wanted to shout immediately that I was sorry, that I was keeping them under my bed downstairs, that I would go get them right away and it would never happen again, but I was too nervous to speak or move.
“Have you been smoking my cigarettes?” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Don’t start smoking,” he said, “It’s a terrible thing to do to yourself.”
“Then how come you do it it?” I asked.
He stopped with deathly facial features and said, “Because, I do terrible things to myself.”
“Why do you do terrible things to yourself?” I asked, and this was where I realized that my plan was working perfectly. Stealing his cigarettes had gotten him talking.
“Well, why do you think that people do terrible things to themselves?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe they think too much or something.”
Jackson was surprised by this answer, but refused to acknowledge his own surprise.
“Yeah, yeah, maybe they think too much. But hey, listen, you’re too young to think too much and do terrible things to yourself, so don’t take my cigarettes anymore.”
“Do you want them back?” I asked.
“You didn’t smoke them?” he said.
Suddenly I realized that I may not get him talking like this again and that I should find out what I wanted to know right then, so, abruptly, I said,
“Who are you always on the phone with?”
Jackson paused and said, “C’mon kid, it’s none of your business who I’m always on the phone with.”
“Then why can’t you tell me?” I asked..
“I just said, it’s none of your business.”
“Yeah, well if it’s none of my business, that means it’s not important to me, so if it’s not important to me, then it shouldn’t matter if you tell me or not.”
“What the hell are you talkin about, kid?”
“Oh, I mean, I don’t know. Never mind, I’m sorry,” I said.
“No, what girl?” said Jackson, walking toward me and lighting a cigarette.
“On the phone—I guess I just thought you were talking to a girl on the phone.”
“Why would you assume that?”
“I don’t know. I guess because you talk to her every day, and you have to keep it a secret, and you do terrible things to yourself. Those are the things I think happens when boys talk to girls.”
“You’re a perceptive kid,” said Jackson, sitting down on the bed. I walked over quickly and sat down next to him. He looked at me as if to say, What makes you so comfortable in here?
“What’s ‘perceptive’ mean?” I asked.
“It just means you’re good at, ya know, understanding things that are unclear.”
“So it is a girl.”
“Yeah, it is a girl.”
“Oh, does she have brown hair?” I asked.
“Yeah, she does,” said Jackson, “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know, I think that my girlfriend will have brown hair.”
“Oh, I see,” he said.
“How come I’ve never seen her here?” I asked.
“Well, it’s a long story kid, but she doesn’t really live around here.”
“So she’s not your wife?”
“No, she’s not my wife. Maybe some day, but probably not. We once thought she would be my wife, but I don’t know kid, we’re losing a fight against time and space, ya know? I got no money. I’m not stable—losing my mind, in fact. I don’t even go outside anymore. I used to be a writer and now I just sit at the desk for hours at a time and stare at the pen and pad. Nah kid, she’s never comin back. She may visit soon, but if she does, it’ll only be because I called her once, and finally sounded—just one time—like the kid she used to be in love with. If she does come, it’ll all come apart for the last time while she’s here, I’d assume.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because, I’m not that kid I used to be. I built my entire world around her while she was still in my world, but now she’s gone and the world I built is still there, but it’s just empty, ya know?”
I did not know what to say. I thought we were talking about the sad things in our lives, so I said,
“My brother just died.”
“Yeah,” he said, and then after a pause said, “Shit, kid, that’s terrible.”
“Well, how come you keep talking to this girl?” I asked.
“I only talk to her once in awhile—on the phone,” said Jackson. “Sometimes she picks up.”
“Oh, but you’re on the phone with her every day—most of the time.”
“Seemingly,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, she’s not usually, I mean—”
“What is it?” I said.
“Most of the time, she’s not actually on the phone,” he said.
“You mean, like, you’re just pretending to talk to her?” I asked. He did not respond. He looked embarrassed and turned his head away. “It’s okay,” I said, “I pretend to talk to girls on the phone sometimes, too.”
He still did not say anything, and still would not look at me.
“When was the last time you really did talk to her?” I asked.
“Maybe two months ago—that was when she put the final break in my heart, I guess.”
“Oh,” I said, “how did she do that?”
“Well, it was after she tried to kill me and she went back to live with her mom,” he said.
“She tried to kill you?” I asked. For some reason I thought that was really cool.
“Well, I don’t know. She swears she wasn’t trying to kill me, but I think she was. I woke up and she was standing over me crying and she had that look in her eyes—you know that look people get when they’re about to kill you?”
“Yeah, I know that look,” I said. (I had seen plenty of movies.)
“So anyway, I freaked out. I think I hit her. She swears I hit her. I might’ve. I don’t know. No matter how many bad fights there were, I still don’t understand it, kid. You can have a thousand unbelievably great things happen in love—sometimes a thousand in one day—but when one unbelievably bad thing happens, you could lose the whole thing. Why is that? How come there’s so much more good than bad every time in love, and yet the good things have so little influence? Ya know? I remember all those cold nights with our warm bodies together. We would fuck until I couldn’t get hard again and then stare into each others’ eyes and talk about how much we loved each other, and then we have a few bad fights, she tries to kill me, maybe I hit her, once, and then it all goes away, ya know? Ya understand what I’m sayin, kid?”
“I think so,” I said.
“I just mean, it feels so strong. You feel overthrown by your love, but then it’s all bullshit. It can crumble with just a few bad moves. It’s just a deception game. There’s no control.”
Jackson was making me uncomfortable now.
“Well, where is she now?” I asked.
“Upstate—in Buffalo, with her mother, I guess.”
“You should go,” I said, mostly because he was making me uncomfortable and I did not want him in the house.
“Yeah, maybe I should go,” he said, distantly.
“Even if she hates you, don’t you want to see her one more time?”
“Yeah, maybe if I even just walked by the house or something, maybe just looked into the window.”
“Yeah, I would,” I said.
“Today? Should I go today?” he said. “I can come back tonight or tomorrow and I’ll tell you how it went.”
I nodded with excitement.
“There’s a window in the bathroom at that house. Maybe I could catch her brushing her hair naked,” he said.
I nodded with increasing excitement.
I even helped him pack that afternoon. He did not know how long he would be gone for, but he packed most of his things. He said he was going to take the bus. He grabbed a paper bag full of change on his way out. Before he walked out the door, he said, “Wish me luck,” and I did not wish him luck. I had a strange feeling that he might not be going to Buffalo.
When he did not return after a week, I started smoking the cigarettes I had stolen from him.
–Story by Matthew Vernon Whalan