It was going on a week I was out sick. I had to get back to work soon or UPS would fire me. People love to see me coming with another crockpot or box of books, but my back doesn’t love it.
Being out sick, I spent a lot of time watching. I awoke in time to see the sunrise—the most spectacular time of the day. As the sun lumbered over the auto body shop across the street, a scrim of pink outlined its corrugated roof. Ambient light reflected onto the pool just below my apartment, shading it a sheer turquoise, masking the murk all too apparent at high noon.
It’s a new day. Chin up: When Charlie stays over, his first words.
In my chef-size kitchen, I tipped Mr. Coffee over my cup, poured in nonfat milk, and went out onto the landing. From my vantage point on the second floor of the Placent_a Arms—the “i” had burned out long ago—the converted motel I called home, I sipped as apartment doors opened, dispelling men—mostly gardeners and construction workers—going to work. I breathed in the still fresh air that smelled of salt from the ocean a mile away. When the Costa Misery fabricas, auto body shops, and taquerias got busy, the salty fragrance would be replaced with exhaust and fried food smells, not altogether unpleasant.
The swimming pool drew my attention. On the surface of the water a Bud beer bottle bobbed about, not so unusual at the Arms, but the bottle looked stopped up with a plastic bag. Odd.
I retied the belt of my bathrobe and hurried down the pre-fab stone steps. The bottle was too far out to reach, so I grabbed the leaf sifter that leaned against the side of the cement stairway and drew it in. I hoped no one was watching. I felt silly, a grown woman, circling 40, fishing bottles from a pool. I returned the sifter to its place and tucked the bottle inside my robe, cold against my bare skin, as if it were a trophy. I rushed upstairs to my apartment. The gravel-embedded laminate felt slick on the bottom of my feet.
Charlie knew about my pool fishing obsession.
“Giselle, honey,” he said, “just let the maintenance people do their job.”
“What maintenance people? You still think this is a normal apartment house?”
“You’re so wacko, why I’m crazy about you.”
Charlie said I was unlike anyone he knew. I had goldfish as pets and subscribed to Fish World, Wrestling, and Popular Mechanics. I stored my credit cards taped inside old magazines slumped in the rack, and my idea of a good time wasn’t shopping like most women but volunteering at the soup kitchen up on 19th Street.
I used a pair of long tweezers to pull out the plastic bag, then set the bottle in the shaft of light on the table. A little slip of paper was at the bottom. I dumped it out, along with a cigarette butt, and was about to unfold the paper when I heard Wanda making noises in the tank. I went to the 50-gallon aquarium that took up that entire wall. It was home to my three orange feeder goldfish that had grown as big as baby koi, and Wanda, a white Oranda with a red fleshy blob on her head. Wanda was my favorite. She let me pet her. And she gurgled noisily when she wanted to be fed. Who says goldfish aren’t smart? Smarter than some people.
I sprinkled flakes of food over the water and the fish levitated to the top, slurping up the food.
“Hey, Wanda,” I said, touching her slippery fin before she inhaled the flakes and bobbled away.
I didn’t just rescue beer bottles. Beside the tank, leaning in the corner, were found objects—a tin pail, an old-fashioned metal toaster, a baseball bat.
I set my mug of coffee on the table by the bottle and unfolded the little slip of paper. I don’t know what I expected to find. Prince Charming chain-smoking his worries away, wondering where to find me?
As a police helicopter groaned overhead—not unusual on West Side Costa Mesa, known as Costa Misery to those of us biding our time here—I tried to make out the smeary letters: what looked like an E and a P and another E. A little water had made it inside the bottle and blurred the ink. I held the paper up to the light.
The words ‘Help me’ came into focus. Help me?
It had to be a joke, designed by someone who knew I fished things out of the pool. Charlie. He’d done it, just to get my goat. He got me good.
I left the bottle in the middle of the table and left the message there, too, and spent the day resting my back and reading a Dean Koontz novel. Charlie came over around six to pick me up for dinner—our weekly dinner date at Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. Big spender, my Charlie. I watched his face as he came in. His eyes landed on the bottle and he said: “Either you’re drinking earlier and earlier or you’ve gone pool fishing again.”
“Very funny,” I said, and waited.
He waited, too. “What?”
“What do you mean, what?”
“You didn’t do that?” I gestured at the bottle. “Stop playing with me already.”
“I love playing with you,” he said, pulling me close, running his finger under my t‑shirt, and further north.
I told him about finding the bottle, but he was rubbing me up there and down there, the way I like it.
“You missed your calling,” I said, although I didn’t know what I meant by that, exactly. I kicked the door shut and we stumbled across the hardwood floor to the sofa where Charlie continued to do what he does best.
As we showered, soaping each other’s backs and fronts and underneaths, I said, “Somebody’s in trouble, Charlie. I have a bad feeling.”
“One of your neighbors is playing with you.” He soaped my arms. “A neighbor sees you fishing things out of the pool, gets bored, and thinks, who can I mess with? You, that’s who.”
“No,” I said, rinsing off. I wrapped myself in a red bath sheet. “I feel it. Something’s wrong.”
He turned off the water. I handed him the other bath sheet.
He followed me into the living room. Late day light sifted in through the blinds. The pool shone below, all turquoisey and bright, as if we were in a lux Orange County resort and not a converted motel on the misery side of town. “I’ve got to do something.”
“You’re so dramatic,” he said, coming up behind me.
The sky was the color of plums. Streetlights on Placentia, beyond the parking lot, came on. Three crows perched on the phone wires above the street.
“Look,” I said. “Those same crows were there this morning, sitting in the identical same place.”
“Damn,” he said, letting out a breath. Charlie didn’t believe in much, but he did believe in crow symbolism. Those muscular black birds didn’t scare me—I thought they were beautiful—but they scared Charlie.
We went to Wahoo’s and I scanned the menu. You’d think I’d have memorized it by now. I ordered fish tacos with guac on the side. Afterward, we went to Goat Hill Tavern and got drunk on martinis. Charlie’s good that way: Whichever way I’m headed, he’s fine with that.
We were both too drunk to drive, so we caught a cab and as the cab pulled up to my so not fancy home sweet home, I squinted at the sign.
“You think anyone notices that burned out ‘i’?” I said to Charlie.
“What ‘I’?” he said.
I looked up at the newly formed word, Placent_a, in old blue neon, which made me think of childbirth and how it might be the most otherworldly thing I might ever experience. I had a smidgen of time left.
In the parking lot, the newest resident, a Burly Dude with long sideburns in jeans and a denim vest over a tee shirt, jumped from his 4X4 truck you needed a ladder to climb into. He was hunched over as he carried a six-pack of Bud and a bouquet of supermarket flowers up the steps.
“Charlie,” I said, stumbling from the cab.
He paid the cabbie and followed me to the stairs.
“Hmm?” We moved across the concrete.
“That guy,” I said, gesturing in Burly Dude’s direction. He’d disappeared through an apartment door.
Charlie was looking in the opposite direction. On the corner adjacent to the Arms, cop car lights whirled about, a dizzying holiday. A shiny low rider with yellow stripes flanking the metallic purple side idled by the curb, a girl in the front seat. A cop had the Hispanic driver up against the car, frisking him. The East Side of Costa Misery segued from middle class to lower middle class and Hispanic, which meant Hispanics were the ones hassled by the police.
“This place is so racist,” I said, starting to move in their direction, but Charlie held me back.
“Down, girl,” he said. “Down.”
I stopped. I really had to stop reacting without thinking. Gonna get me in trouble someday.
The August heat surged about us. Upstairs, the heat of the apartment closed in, so we left our clothes in a puddle on the floor and jumped in the shower where we did more than bathe.
Charlie left at sun-up, but not before he said, “It’s a new day. Chin up!” He drove a furniture truck for a factory up the 91 in the Inland Empire, which was more desolate than empire like. I called in sick—again. I was thinking about Burly Dude with beer and flowers. I still had a bad feeling. I poured more coffee and sat at the table. My apartment, situated in the center of the U, afforded me a view of apartments on both sides. I sat and I sat and just when I thought nothing would happen, Burly Dude appeared through his door on the far end. He stomped down the steps, making my apartment vibrate, started his 4X4, and pulled away.
I poured a second cup and pulled on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt of Charlie’s. I slipped into flipflops and moseyed onto the landing. Already the heat was creeping upwards. I padded to Burly Dude’s apartment and listened. Next door, Marta emerged, shouldering a tote bag with spray bottles, her long black hair held back with a red headband.
“Hey, Marta,” I said. “Do you know the guy who lives there?”
She frowned. “You mean couple? He not so nice to his lady.”
“What do you mean?”
“She cry. A lot. I sorry. I get to bus. Rich people need clean house.” She tapped her tote brimming with cleaning fluids.
I returned to his door and pressed my ear up against it. I heard the distinct sound of a morning TV show. I tried the doorknob. Locked of course. I knocked. Nothing. Knocked a little louder, pressed my ear against the wood. This time I heard a vague clattering and humming. The doorknob had a lock. No deadbolt—from this side, anyway. I jiggled the knob. There was a little give. I ran home for something to use to pick the lock. When my older brother was a kid, he taught me how to pick locks—preparation for his later life of crime, which moved him to his current happy home, Chino State Prison.
Back at the door, I stuck a bobby pin in the lock and jiggled. Nothing. Then my crochet hook. This time something gave and miracle of miracles, the door opened. I gasped and gave a little push. An apartment layout just like mine—big rectangular living room, tiny kitchen. Minimal furnishings but tidy. A vase with the flowers Burly Dude carried home last night. The bedroom door was closed. I went to it and listened. TV sounds. Good Morning America. I creaked it open and there, on a chair, a young woman wearing a football jersey with the number 42 was tied to a chair, duct tape over her mouth. Her dark eyes were as big as malted milk balls.
I went to her and peeled back the duct tape. “He’s coming right back,” she said. “He just went out for food.”
“Why’d he tie you up?”
“I tried to break up with him, but he’s crazy. You should go.”
The room looked normal. Pink comforter on the bed. Alarm clocks on each night stand. Framed photos on the dresser.
“Does he always keep you tied up in here?”
“Just when he goes out.”
“I’ll come back for you,” I said, and pressed the duct tape back on.
As I eased out of the room, I heard the truck. I closed the bedroom door, and locked and closed the door to the apartment. I was at the top of the stairway by my apartment when he reached the top. My heart was about to explode out of my chest.
He smiled politely but his eyes were dead. He carried a Del Taco bag and had a heart tatt on his forearm. “Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” I replied.
I disappeared into my apartment and locked the door. I watched through the Venetian blinds as he unlocked the door. He noticed something was different, but not different enough to stop him. Crows sat on the phone lines near the apartment. I made a cup of coffee but that jacked up my adrenaline even more. I had to do something, but what? Call the police? I’m naïve that way.
I told my story to the dispatcher, but when I gave her the address, her voice and her interest went slack. To the cops, the residents on this side of town were losers, drunks, drug crazed nobodies. Something major had to be going on to get their attention.
The dispatcher said she’d send someone over when the officers were freed up. I said never mind and hung up on her.
I tried calling Charlie but my call trailed into his voice mail.
My heart wouldn’t stop racing. I’d broken a sweat—from the heat of the day or my upset, I couldn’t tell.
I scanned the apartment for a weapon of some sort. A dumb bell was the only thing I owned that could do serious damage. Gurgling from the tank drew my attention. The air filter had come loose again. I tightened it as Wanda and the other fish skimmed the top of the tank looking for food.
I made more coffee and alternated between sitting at my table and pacing, all the while keeping a watch on the apartment in the corner. All the other doors opened and Hispanic women and children poured out—going to their cleaning jobs, or walking the kids to school. Finally Burly Dude’s door opened. He got back into his truck and it growled away. I took the bobby pin, crochet hook, and the baseball bat that leaned in the corner, and hurried to the apartment, all the while praying to St. George, the saint of courage and bravery, that I would get the girl out before I crumbled from a case of nerves.
I picked the lock and was in the apartment before anyone else left their apartment. When I opened the bedroom door, the woman’s wide eyes said, Get me the hell out of here. That was my aim. I peeled back the duct tape.
“Thank God,” she said.
“Where’d your boyfriend go?”
“Ex-boyfriend,” she said. “He’s a process server. He had papers to serve.”
I undid the knots.
“He’s a nice guy,” she said, “except when he’s mad. He was always throwing beer bottles into the pool and then I’d see you out there, fishing them out and I thought I would just try.”
I undid the last knot. “How long have you been in this chair?”
She got up, kicked out her limbs, and ran into the bathroom. “Days!” she called. Then she was in the kitchen, drinking water like it was something new and good. She had bruises on her arms.
“He do that to you?”
“He was upset I was leaving.”
I felt my face grow red. “We should go,” I said, throwing the baseball bat over my shoulder. “You have someone you can stay with?”
She was taking her good ole time in the kitchen. Maybe she didn’t want to leave. Women could be like that, not want to be set free. I stood watch at the front door. She ran to the bedroom and bathroom and was throwing things in a bag when I heard the truck.
“He’s back,” I said.
She joined me, an unzipped backpack hanging from one hand. She chewed the fingernails of her other hand.
He was out of the truck and on his way. She looked back at the door to the bedroom. She wanted to stay? I swear that made her almost not worth rescuing.
“C’mon,” I said, pulling her along, having no idea what we were going to do when we saw him.
We were out on the landing when he hit the bottom step. He was busy watching his feet when he looked up.
“What the fuck?” he said.
He picked up the pace. He was on the landing before us.
“Natalie,” he said.
He went for her arm and I held the bat as if I were about to swing at a ball.
“I swear, Nat, I’m gonna kick your ass over this,” he said.
Natalie began crying.
“Go down there,” I said, pointing. “Now.”
Burly Dude and I faced off. He grabbed at the bat but I’ve always been fast on my feet, and when I’m pissed off, there’s no stopping me. I jumped back in time so that he grasped at air.
“Guys like you…” I said, letting the statement hang in the air between us. I backed up into the far corner, out of the line of sight of the office. He followed and came at me. With the bat, I cracked his knees and he fell. He pulled himself up and I thought of Natalie’s bruises and of my best friend’s sister in Alabama whose husband strangled her, wrapped her up in plastic and buried her in the woods behind their house.
Who else would Burly Dude do in if I didn’t do something?
“Bitch,” he said to me, and that’s when I saw stars. I can never abide by name calling. My vision shattered into gray and white shimmering splotches and I swung the bat against his skull, hard. There was a crack. He looked surprised. I pushed at his torso as hard as I could with the bat and he grabbed onto the railing but lost his footing and flipped over, his skull where I hit bouncing against the bullnose edge of the pool.
Natalie ran from the office, followed by the manager, and bent over him. I joined them, and soon the EMTs joined us and police were everywhere.
They agreed it had just been an awful accident, and after I spent the day at the police station, they released me. Charlie was waiting. He was still in his work clothes, hands deep in his pockets.
“What the hell, Giselle?”
“I had to help a neighbor.”
“You must’ve done more than help a neighbor for them to bring you here.”
“The guy with the Bud and the flowers. He accidentally fell from the landing, and I was a witness, so they brought me in.”
“He threatened his girlfriend, then he threatened me. He lost his footing and fell. That’s it.”
“That’s it, huh?”
We hurried from the Costa Misery police station to the car across the street. Charlie’s mouth was fastened into a frown.
“He was a rat,” I said.
Charlie beeped the remote to unlock his Tundra. He opened the passenger’s door and I climbed in.
“He was holding his girlfriend hostage,” I said. “I had to do something.”
He breathed out hard and gave me a sidelong glance.
I would never tell Charlie or anyone what had really happened. I couldn’t. The world was better off with one less rat. I would soothe myself with that thought, which at first would be occasionally, and then, not so much.