I once cheated a blind woman out of $125. She was a law student then, and I, an English MA.
My teaching assistant stipend amounted to $484 a month. My monthly rent totaled $125 including steam heat and water. Electricity was an extra six dollars. Sometimes I’d eat lunch at Smokey’s Café on campus where I’d buy a bowl of vegetable soup and a cellophane-wrapped peanut butter sandwich for seventy-five cents. On other days, I’d sell plasma down the street from my apartment. The process took two hours, and I’d lay on a lounge chair watching cartoons or soap operas, gaining ten dollars by plasma’s end. Then I’d walk to Ruby Tuesday and buy a burger to replace the protein I just gave up. With the tracks in my arm and the need for a red meat fix, I felt like a junkie.
My apartment house was once an old Victorian home complete with turrets and gables, everything painted white. My second-floor space in the very back of the house, surely an add-on, was a two-room studio. When you walked in you had to take two steps down immediately. I saw no problem here, but once when I opened the door to friends of friends, they looked shocked.
“I thought you were a dwarf for a minute there,” one said.
The place was furnished, too. When I write those words, I feel that “furnished” doesn’t do justice to anything that has heard of, or been remotely associated with, furniture. The feature I remember best was a brown couch with some sort of polyester fabric of the sort where beaded-up little balls greeted any body surface, regardless of where on the piece you stationed yourself. It had four legs, one of which was bent when I moved in, the second of which joined its mate in the first month, and a third giving me four more months before collapsing the whole.
I asked my landlady if I could get a new couch given that I was paying rent for a furnished place. Within three days, a new couch appeared in my apartment while I was out analyzing Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I’d say I was pleased, for a new couch is a new couch. Or at least a reconditioned couch covered in faux orange fur.
When my bed collapsed, I asked for a new mattress, apparently not learning my lesson well enough. Within the same three days, I got my new single mattress.
It was completely plastic, perfect for the summer months.
I lived in this place for two years, 1537 Laurel Avenue.
For three days the second winter, I took in an orange kitten that pawed at my window, which led to the fire escape. She curled herself on my bed. I fed her cheese and milk, and one of my neighbors gave me a can of Friskies. I let the kitten outside one day as I left for class, and I never saw her again.
Above me, two Mormon elders lived. They wore thick black shoes and paced their bare floor like expectant fathers. When they mounted or descended the metal fire escape stairs, my apartment reached 4 on the Richter scale. I cursed them under my breath every time.
My lone bedroom window looked out toward I-40, and beyond that, to Sharp’s Ridge, where the towers of all three local TV stations sat with their red lights of warning, blinking. Somehow, it felt romantic. My life, alone.
I found that apartment through the listings at Campus Housing. My parents helped and I still feel their dismay when we walked in that first time. They tried to hide it, and I’m sure the low rent helped. For my mother, especially, what surely did not help was the landlady. She was sweet and welcoming and informative. Her first floor apartment/office was dark, almost black. It had a off-putting smell, something like stale limeade. But she had a German Shepherd with her, a gentle dog whom my new landlady warned us not to touch.
“That’s Katrina. She’s a service dog,” we were told. “And my name is Dee.”
Dee didn’t wear dark glasses. Her eyes were misshapen, each directed at different angles. I assumed she was blind from birth.
She then showed us to the second floor, to my new home.
This was early July, and so we took the place and paid two months rent to keep it. When we returned in mid-September to move in my belongings, my parents helped me clean the apartment. My mother spruced everything, even adding fresh flowers. We invited Dee up to visit.
“Look,” we said, “at what we’ve done with the place!”
“I see,” Dee said. “It looks wonderful.”
I’d see Dee sometimes being pulled up 16th Street by Katrina. Otherwise, my contact with her was limited to dropping off my monthly check. I made sure to give it to her in person, and a few days later, she’d leave the receipt in my mailbox.
I don’t remember why I was late that one month. The struggles of a grad student, or maybe I hedged a bet and bought some pot. I had planned to pay, though. I never thought of not paying, until I didn’t need to.
Until Dee acted, assuming of course, that I, apparently of all the tenants, had surely paid. I wonder if she ever discovered otherwise. I wonder if she had to make up the difference. I wonder what happened to Katrina, because before I moved out that summer, Dee got a new dog, a yellow lab.
The receipt had Dee’s scribbled mark, as usual, with the date at the top. I saved that paper for a few months, and after I moved, it found its way to the dumpster in back.
I’ll remember that date, though, and all the lies it held.
May 2, 1980.
Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, The New Southern Fugitives, Hippocampus, Wraparound South, Under the Sun, Coachella Review, Flying South, and Eclectica. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.