Tartland (An Elsinore Story)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: church mouse productions

Levi grew up believing that the Bible had all the answers - but Rent Week is pressing even more questions on him. While the absentee landlord who's hired him applies suntan lotion in the Costa del
Sol, Levi is busy chasing down renters who have more tales of woe than they have money. His faith encourages him to be forgiving. But his boss is demanding that he be ruthless. Five days and
counting. Is this the month he gets fired?

Submitted: January 24, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: January 24, 2018





All in all, Levi concluded, this was probably not the best time in history to greet the world as a conspicuous virgin. And probably not the best time to believe, as he’d once been told to believe, that all anyone needed was the Bible and a regular practice of prayer to be successful in life. 

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves,” the Savior had said. “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” 

Levi felt that he had the “dove” part down pretty well. He was confident that he’d seldom been overbearing, or hurtful, or reckless as he prepared for the Exaltation that would come when the Lord returned in Glory. Like everyone he knew, he was eager for the Rapture. His rural county was losing population every year, and it seemed like the people who were leaving were being rewarded. But he was sure the Rapture would reset the world to the way it should be: so he had a tendency to feel guilty when he acknowledged any kind of discontent. 

You could be happy anywhere. His parents said that. His minister said that, too. 


A lot of life was just expectation. You could live a better story, people said, if you were realistic. If you understood the stories that might be possible for you. Not “hoping for the moon”. Not wanting what other people had. 

“Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s….’ 

He translated that to mean that the modest boundaries of Elsinore would always be enough for him. 

Other people had escaped Elsinore. But he just had to assume that the Lord had other things in mind for them. As a matter of fact, he wondered if even Elsinore was too much. That was one of the frequent doubts he had now. That he was too much in the world. That he was thoroughly unprepared: even for small town America. 

A few years before—when he’d asked one of his high school teachers, a high profile Catholic—about becoming a monk, she’d just laughed. ‘It’s more than you can handle,’ she said. But now it was “rent week” again, and life in a peaceful monastic house with a bunch of silent brothers at the end of a remote and seldom-traveled road didn’t seem like such a bad idea, to tell the truth. 

Speaking of “remote”, Rent Week was a perfect pain in the ass because Gordon—the owner of the apartment complex which Levi had been hired to manage— lived in a pretty remote part of Spain. 

Levi had a boss who was 5,000 miles away. And yet the miracle of the Internet meant that Gordon checked his online accounts every day during this critical first week of the month. 

All the money, from all the properties, had to be in by the fifth of the month. 

Signed, sealed, and delivered. 

As had been crisply and impatiently explained to Levi during the job interview, Gordon—and his surfer “friend”, Cassady—needed the money in their accounts by that deadline so they pay, in turn, for the sun-dappled whitewashed cottage on the Costa del Sol, from which they posted all those colorful, carefree, quirky photos on social media. 

One thing very much affected another. 

People needed to pay up, Gordon reminded him. On time. Every month. He wasn’t running a charity, or a soup kitchen, or low-income housing. Adults could read a calendar—and everyone who understood grown up life should understand grown-up responsibilities. If someone didn’t pay up by the fifth, then Levi needed to get them out. 

The cops would help. They were always on the landlord’s side. Levi just needed to call them if there was someone trying to game the system. 

Gordon had made it all seem simple during that first conversation. The calendar page would change—people would eagerly drop by with their checks, or with money, in plenty of time to get to the bank—Levi would accumulate it all—and write out a deposit slip. Just a matter of keeping track of who paid what. 

In carefree, colorful, sun-dappled Spain, Gordon would never have to interrupt his delicious days with festering concerns about money, and Levi wouldn’t need to have long international confrontations offering up rambling, stammering, and ultimately unconvincing explanations. 

As long as everyone got their money in on time. 

Which was why Rent Week turned out to be such an ordeal. Even in the Heartland—where people were thought to be upright and responsible—Levi had to chase people down. Knock on doors. Peek in windows. Try to catch people on their way to their cars. Call them at work. Wake them up at night. 

Forced to do things that he wouldn’t quite call “Christian”. 

And, more than that: forced to see how people lived their lives outside the tidy bubble of his mother’s immaculately kept home and his self-satisfied, self-absorbed, self-congratulating Full Bible church. 

So it was Rent Week. His comfort zone being violated almost every day: beginning a couple of days ago, when he’d forced himself to go down to Casey’s place, Apartment #4, because—after six months of seeing her wait until the last minute—he knew she had no intention of coughing up until he was standing right in front of her. 

#4 was along the row in the basement. The cheapest places. The grimmest. And only occupied because rentals in Elsinore were so hard to find. 

Levi hated them. 

Even Gordon called them “dungeons”. 

But Casey, high school age but no longer going to school, seemed comfortable making a bad thing even worse. She could have spent a few seconds cleaning the place up—trying to make it brighter—trying to make it more of a home. 

But Casey was all video games. All the time. 

And today: exactly the same. 

He could hear her baby crying from outside the door. But Casey was confident she could outbellow her child, and just yelled “Come in!” after his knock. 

He’d gotten the usual strong whiff outside. But no sooner was he inside than he was slammed in the face with the dense smells of spoiled milk, unwashed clothes, fermenting diapers, and crusted food. Once again, the baby red-faced and crying in his crib—all alone in the world, it seemed—while his mother was welded to a bean bag chair, watching animated shapes shifting swiftly across the screen. 

Enchanted by the screen. Using both hands to wrestle with some sort of black pod. 

The baby cried a little louder, while Casey barely looked up. 

He’d been doing this job since the winter months. Still, he remained mystified by people who seemed mystified by his visits. As always, he didn’t want to sound insulting. That would hardly be Christian. But the girl reacted as though she had no idea why he was there, or what he might be talking about. 

‘What do you mean it’s that time of the month? I had my period a week ago. I keep track now! If you think I’m ever getting knocked up again you’re crazy!’ 

‘There’s rent due every month.’ After a slight hesitation, he went on: ‘And I think your baby might need something. How long has he been crying like this?’ 

Mom’ll be by in a minute. She’s picking him up. She’ll have your money.’ 

As usual, Levi could see that he was majestically irrelevant to the urgent, essential, existential events on the shifting screen. Casey never took her eyes away from it—and he imagined that conversing with a sleepwalker might not be that much different. 

‘When will she have the money? Your mother, I mean. When is she coming by?’ 

But why bother with questions? he wondered. Casey might be on another planet, but he was on this planet and the baby’s obvious misery provoked him to start picking his way toward the crib. There seemed to be a path through the astonishing chaos in the apartment, now that he looked at it more carefully. The little guy—standing at the rail, his diaper hanging very low—didn’t seem frightened, and it was impossible for Levi to be intimidated by a baby. The third child of nine, he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t handling little ones every day. 

But no one in his church would ever allow a baby to know this kind of misery. This little guy’s hair was matted to his head with grease and sweat—tears and snot coated his face—and his voice was raspy from crying. It must have hurt him to keep making all that noise. 

Levi stroked the little guy’s head: although that wasn’t going to do much good in the long term. In the short term, just the fact that someone was willing to pay attention to him prompted the baby to move more toward a whimper. 

Which was something, to Levi’s surprise, that caused the mother some concern. 

‘What the fuck are you doing over there?’ 

‘I’m acting like it’s a baby!’ 

The wrong tone, thought Levi. The Sin of Impatience. But he still thought he was being pretty tolerant—considering all the other things he could have said to this useless girl who seemed to be blaming him for something. 

‘I told you: my mom’s on her way!’ 

‘But she’s not his mother. You’re his mother—’ 

‘Jesus Christ, you never walk in here without another fucking sermon! My parents made me have it! Now they can take care of it!’ 

‘That doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make you any less his mother—’ 

‘Fuck you!’ 

He’d noticed that Casey always seemed to use this as a closing argument. The end of any discussion. But Levi wanted to make it clear that there wasn’t any particular wit in just dropping an f-bomb. 

‘Swearing doesn’t prove anything. And it doesn’t change anything.’ 

He located a dirty t-shirt on the floor and wiped the baby’s nose. 

Picking him up, making some of the clucking noises that babies liked, and bouncing in a gentle way seemed to get the baby to the point where he started to quiet down. He was soaking wet and needed to get out of his urine marinade. But Levi had no idea where to even look for a dry diaper. 

Still bouncing, and keeping up the nonsense sounds, Levi decided there was only one method of getting the girl’s attention. 

Casey ignored him in a conspicuous way, until he discovered a position where he could see a surge suppressor glowing on the floor. He would have guessed that the thing would be hopelessly buried. But, by some miracle, most of it was visible. 

Everything was running from that box, and—when he tapped the main switch with his toe—the whole game system went instantly dark and silent. 

Which was when Casey went nuclear. ‘You motherfucker! You motherfucker!’ 

She rolled like an angry bear out of her place near the floor and rushed at him: pounding her fist against his free shoulder. 

‘None of this is any of your business, motherfucker! Bible motherfucker!’ She went back to her game console: frantic with grief. ‘Get out! Get out!’ 

She ran her fingers through her hair. 

‘How the fuck do I get high score now?’ She would have paced up and down in fury—but there was no room for any kind of free movement. ‘Now you’ve ruined the whole day!’ 

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’ Levi murmured. ‘That’s what Jesus said.’ 

Casey didn’t take that well, either: ‘Shut the fuck up! I don’t have anything to do with your Jesus! Shut the fuck up!’ 

The girl had no intention of doing anything other than video gaming. So another kind of comical game started up as she tried to get back to the switch that would bring everything she adored back to life. While she tried to dodge around him, Levi did his best to block her way: casually sidestepping here and there. 

A little mean. But he had to admit that it was funny. 

‘Where do you keep the diapers?’ 

‘How the hell should I know?’ 

‘Because you live here—’ 

‘Shut the fuck up, and stop getting in my way!’ 

Later he knew he would regret this childishness, but the sins of Impatience (and maybe Pride) were starting to get some traction in his voice now. 

‘Doesn’t feel so good to scream and cry and have no one pay attention to you, does it?’ 

‘Fuck you! That little piece of shit is not my problem, so just shut the fuck up! You Bible people are all virgins! You don’t even know what goes where! All you do is sit around and sing songs! You don’t know anything about anything!’ 

‘I know enough—’ 

‘Turn the fucking game back on!’ 

‘I know enough to tell you—’ 

‘Turn the fucking game back on I said!’ 

‘I know enough to tell you that you’ve got a month to look for someplace else!’ 

Magic words, as it turned out. The girl went suddenly silent: looking at him as though he’d said something meaningful, but she didn’t quite know what it was. 

By now the baby was resting his voice: was watching both of them, a reeking spectator to the intense conversation. 

To the sins of Impatience, and Pride, Levi added a touch of Judgment. He couldn’t help it. Both mother and child stank to high heaven. The clothes on the floor all seemed to be filthy—and both mother and son no different. Casey’s pendulous breasts were shifting back and forth under her faded tank top, and Levi couldn’t guess when she’d last bothered to comb her hair. Now that she was facing him at the same time she was talking, her breath was sour enough to knock him right on his back. 

‘What the fuck are you talking about? Just because we’re a couple of days late—’ 

‘People need to sleep, Casey. The people on both sides. And above.’ 

‘Somebody saying there’s too much noise?’ 

‘Well what do you think? They’ve been calling Gordon—’ 

‘Who’s Gordon?’ 

‘The guy who owns these places. You didn’t think that I owned them, did you?’ 

‘I don’t bother thinking about shit like that!’ 

That was hardly news. She spent all her time thinking about “high score”. 

‘They’ve been calling Gordon. Gordon’s made his decision. And now it’s time for you to go. My hands are tied—’ 

‘You can’t do this—’ 

‘He can do it. He does this all the time. The cops will come in, and there’s nothing I can do. Even if I wanted to. I have to side with the people who are trying to be responsible. Tenants on either side of you pay the same as you, and they don’t deserve to have a baby screaming through the night while you sit here like a zombie—’ 

‘I’m living my life!’ 

‘You’re looking at cartoons on a screen!’ 

He noticed that she didn’t even both to try to take the baby. She dropped down on her vinyl landing zone, and seemed to be talking mostly to herself: ‘If I can’t live here, then what am I supposed to do?’ 

‘Are you even eighteen?’ Levi couldn’t help asking. ‘Are you even supposed to be living on your own?’ 

‘We’re doing fine!’ 

‘You could’ve fooled me.’ Then he corrected himself: ‘Fooled us. You’re in over your head, Casey. You need to make other arrangements. It’s four weeks from now, so you should be able to find something else—’ 

‘Almost nobody else takes kids!’ 

‘There must be somebody. There are kids all over the place in this town—’ 

‘And the ones that take kids cost a lot more!’ 

‘Nothing I can do, Casey. Until you have a better idea of how to take care of your baby—’ 

‘I know how to take care of my baby!’ She was snarling at him. Everything was his fault. Not just the interrupted video game. Everything. Her whole crappy life. ‘I know how to take care of him! I was a paid babysitter when I was in school! I just don’t want to because—’ 

The front door to the apartment was open, so they both heard a car door slam shut out front. Levi decided it was worth looking to see if Casey’s mother had finally shown up. 

As soon as he was in motion away from her, Casey dived down and flipped the switch on the surge suppressor: bringing her game session gradually back to life. Instead of following him out, and trying to leverage her arguments about eviction, she hurried back to her imaginary world as fast as she could. 

For his part, Levi didn’t bother looking back. He carefully climbed the outside stairs with the baby—who eagerly reached for his grandmother as soon as he saw her. 

Levi knew that Mrs Koenig had some big job in state government, and it looked like she’d come straight from there. A tiny woman, with oversized confidence, she was in a dark blue suit with sensible heels, and she had apologies ready. Although they didn’t quite ring true. She had no real reason to respect him. After all, she was a well-paid administrator, and he was just a dumb loser who more or less managed a bunch of downscale apartments. 

Levi’s hands were damp after handing over the kid. But he didn’t have anything to wipe them on. 

‘I couldn’t find a new diaper for him.’ 

‘They’re in the car,’ Mrs Koenig explained. ‘Casey told me she’d run out.’ The baby buried his face in his grandmother’s shoulder: so much happier, now, to be with someone safe and familiar. ‘We’ll have a rent check to you by the fifth. That’s when I get paid.’ 

‘I know it’s due the first of the month,’ she continued. ‘But we’re definitely good for it. Gordon knows that.’ 

Levi gestured back toward the building. The second time he would be forced to have this very uncomfortable conversation this morning: ‘There are six units here, Mrs Koenig—’ 

She instantly cut him off: ‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’ 

‘—and not a lot of space between them. So—when there’s a lot of noise—’ 

‘That’s not the baby’s fault, certainly.’ 

‘Right. Right. Nobody’s blaming the baby. We know whose fault it is. But it’s been a problem for a while, and we just don’t have any other option.’ 

‘Any other option than what? I wish you’d just come out and say what you mean.’  

‘The other tenants in this building have been calling Mr Gordon, and he’s told me to terminate the lease.’ 

The tiny woman shrugged that off: ‘I think that’s probably illegal. But, even if you could do it, where would Casey go?’ 

‘She can go wherever she wants. And—as far as legal and illegal—I just go according to what Mr Gordon says, and he says they can’t be here—’ 

‘We can’t afford to move her! Places that take children charge extra.’ 

‘Or maybe moving back home. Does Casey even belong here? Is she even eighteen?’ 

‘She’s too disruptive at home.’ Mrs Koenig made it sound like she and Casey weren’t even related. ‘A brainless twat, just between you and me. Mean-spirited and needy. My husband and I have an empty nest and that’s what we’ve gotten used to. Just the way we like it.’ 

‘Maybe being at home can help her be a better mother.’ 

‘She doesn’t want to be a better mother.’ Mrs Koenig wasn’t exaggerating. ‘She’s hopeless. She’s useless. And I should know....’ She started to stroke the baby’s head, then pulled her hand away in immediate disgust: ‘I mean: look at him! Look at him! Poor thing! She won’t lift a finger. She won’t lift a finger because she’s so busy getting back at me for all the trouble we’ve had.’ 

‘Well—maybe adoption,’ Levi began. ‘There’s plenty of childless couples—’ 

‘But this is our baby!’ She was insulted, and she wanted Levi to know it. 

‘Then it seems like we’ve worked through all the options.’ 

‘Give me Gordon’s number,’ Mrs Koenig demanded, ‘and I’ll call him. We can get this all straightened out.’ 

‘I don’t have it with me. I can give it to you if you come by the office. Remember that it’s international. He doesn’t live here in town.’ 

‘I know. Everybody knows, of course. He’s shacked up with some greasy boy-toy in Europe. Doesn’t want people talking—even though people are talking about him all the time. Ran off with one of his students. Home grown pervert. It’s not as though he’s fooling anybody. What about his e-mail address?’ 

‘He doesn’t want me giving that out—’ 

‘Then give me the number and I’ll explain to him how things work in the real world.’ 

Mrs Koenig—’ 

‘He can explain to me what we’re supposed to do. Since I don’t understand what we’re supposed to do!’ 

Levi felt himself wilting. He’d been debating stoutly up to this point, but he wasn’t used to confrontations like this. On the other hand, there was no doubt Gordon had made up his mind. Casey and her mother weren’t very sympathetic characters—and there were five other tenants who would keep bitching until the Last Judgment if something drastic wasn’t done. 

While he was busy considering all this, Mrs Koenig was glaring at him—expecting him to give up. Expecting him to surrender: ‘I asked you a question! Tell me...what am I supposed to do?’ 

Levi doggedly looked her in the eye, and held fast: ‘Maybe think about the other five people living here, trying to get to sleep at night. They could have called the cops. But they haven’t—’ 

‘There’s no law against babies!’ 

‘Or Child Services. They could call them. Which is probably what I should have done a month ago—’ 

‘I’m doing the best I can!’ 

‘And so am I. Mr Gordon doesn’t like drama. He’s got his life arranged the way he wants—’ 

‘Right! He’s got what he wants!’ 

‘He just wants the money in the account on time, and everybody more or less happy. Or just not miserable. Just not forced to listen to a baby being ignored—’ 

‘Little Mike is not—’ 

‘—getting what he needs, and you know—’ 

Gordon would just be pissing in the wind. Giving up a paying customer—’ 

‘After the clean-up, her place’ll be rented in a couple of days. That’s not a problem—’ 

‘Look…it’s just so much simpler to keep things the way they are. 

‘No. No,’ Levi concluded. ‘If she’s still here in a month, we’ll call the cops. And then I’m betting they’ll bring in CPS, because that’s what this whole thing seems to need.’ 

‘Then maybe we won’t pay for this month.’ Mrs Koenig said this very matter-of- factly: as though that’s what any reasonable person would do. Continuing to play hardball while the baby was falling asleep in her arms. 

Levi thought that the little guy deserved a lot better than these two women. 

‘Then we’ll start eviction now. It’s not like I have a choice—’ 

She answered with an odd, triumphant look: ‘A contested eviction takes months.’ 

‘But Child Services can be here in a couple of days,’ he replied, in turn. 

‘You know you’d never do that!’ 

‘—and, after they come in, who knows what would happen. This is the fifth time I’ve been in that apartment. It’s never any different. The first time I almost threw up just from the smell. CPS would maybe need ten minutes—’ 

‘You don’t have the balls to call them in! If you did, then you’d have done it by now.’ 

Levi flinched at the reference to “balls”. Not the first time that someone had suggested that being a committed Christian also meant that you were less of a man than other men. He was also fighting impatience with his own Anger. He wanted to believe that his Faith gave him the means to rise above these dark emotions. All the same, he couldn’t keep the resentment out of his voice when he ended the conversation: ‘I’ve said everything I need to say—’ 

‘I can get Gordon in trouble, too,’ Mrs Koenig assured him. ‘He’s done things. Underage sex, sex for money, and there’s extradition from Western Europe. He should think about those little details. 

Levi disengaged from her: starting to walk back toward the main building. 

‘Do whatever you think you need to do. I’ve said everything I need to say.’ 


All that happened on Monday. 

Tuesday, Mrs Koenig called to say that no one picked up the phone at the number Levi had given her. But all Levi could do was confirm the number, and refuse (again) to share Gordon’s e-mail address. Gordon considered that address a kind of private code. Levi knew he wouldn’t have the manager’s job—or the manager’s apartment—if that ever fell into the wrong hands. 

No matter how Levi felt about Casey, and the poor little boy who was stuck with her as a mother, he could at least tell the folks in Apartments #3 and #5 and #7—who were reasonable and patient people—that maybe the issues with the baby in #4 might be over. 



Sparkle and Friend


With the rent deadline looming, a couple of tenants were still MIA: not answering doors, or not in the neighborhood at all. But Levi caught a break as he was wheeling his cart through the spacious aisles of Walmart: spotting his tenant, Sparkle, walking down the expanse that separated Walmart food aisles from Walmart-everything-else. 

Being nocturnal, Sparkle was one of the most elusive tenants on his list. Not that she was unfriendly. Just routinely short on cash. Even now, when there was no possible escape, he could see her trying to think of some way to avoid him: maybe by ducking into the frozen food. 

Then she seemed to remember that she wasn’t alone. A guy walking with her. 

Levi had seen him before, and knew there was something strange going on with this couple: a girl who wasn’t quite twenty walking provocatively with a man old enough to be her grandfather. But again, Levi’s very strict Bible church had never encouraged him to think about very much about the possibilities offered by relationships of that kind. 

He knew this old cowpoke occasionally spent the night in the tiny rental house: House #C. Levi had twice seen him closing the front door at an hour of the morning when he plainly hadn’t come by just to chat. He had seen the visitor, and the visitor had seen him: startled by someone riding a bicycle past the house at that hour. 

Maybe the old guy had forgotten that there were people worked graveyard shifts and were routinely returning home just as the sun was coming up. 

Now this strange boyfriend was holding Sparkle by the arm, as though he was a member of law enforcement taking her in for questioning. But there was also a clumsy kind of affection in his manner as well. He wanted the world to know: this piece of ass belonged to him—and no one else. 

A little unnecessaryLevi thought. He wasn’t exactly sure who wanted that particular piece of ass. But, as usual, Sparkle seemed to be putting it all out there for anyone who might want to consider desiring her. She wanted her pallid, lumpy body—with all of its tags, and moles, and cellulite—to be visible to everyone. The cutoff jean shorts she routinely wore were trimmed high enough so he could see the folds under her buttocks: the white pockets flapping on her thighs. (Levi didn’t know if she had any other shorts. These were what she always wore.Her top was a couple of strategically-placed triangles of fabric held together by a few pieces of string. (Levi didn’t know if she had any other blouse, or shirt.He’d never seen her in anything but dirty flip-flops. The same ones she was wearing now. (He didn’t know if she had any other shoes.) 

The other Walmart shoppers were not enjoying the signals of affection between this oddly-matched pair coming toward him. 

And the glances from other shoppers weren’t just because Sparkle was mostly naked. 

The man with her had all the attentiveness of a new lover—but looked like a Dust Bowl rancher on the verge of bankruptcy. He obviously thought some things were worth spending money on. A huge new straw hat shaded his face. A new denim shirt had imitation pearl snaps on the pockets. But the rest of the outfit was right out of the feed lot. Battered jeans—with dust in the creases. Boots so old that the toes were starting to curl up: making him look like a bandy-legged and degenerate elf. 

Any time other than Rent Week: Levi could push his cart in another direction, and try very hard to forget about what these two were doing together. But now there were only three more days until the rent deadline: so he approached them—even though Sparkle seemed frightened by his greeting. 

‘Can I have a second?’ 

The cowpoke instantly started sputtering: ‘Wait a minute! What are you trying to pull? Trying to pick up this girl in front of God and everybody?’ 

Sparkle immediately moved to calm him down. 

Just my landlord, Uncle Johnny.’ 

‘Apartment manager,’ Levi corrected her. ‘I just need a second of your time—if we could talk one on one.’ 

‘She ain’t got no secrets from me!’ “Uncle Johnny” announced, loud enough to be heard by everyone in the aisle. ‘I seen all her parts. I seen her naked plenty a’times!’ 

Levi thought that Sparkle was pretty brazen. But even she looked like she wanted to sink into the floor, so Levi persisted, addressing “Uncle Johnny” directly: ‘Just the two of us. It won’t take long.’ 

They stepped into the bread aisle: next to the wall of bakery products. There wasn’t much privacy, since a lot of browsers were squeezing bread, but the discreet commotion absorbed what they were saying—while “Uncle Johnny” stood off in the main aisle: looking aggrieved and feisty. Levi had seen this girl without her makeup, with her acne in full bloom. Now, with powder caked on her face, there were just bumps—under hair teased out like a country-and-western star. She was rubbing her arm where “Uncle Johnny” had been gripping it. 

‘Jesus Christ,’ she muttered. ‘How do I get myself into these situations?’ 

‘That’s none of my business—’ Levi began. 

‘Not the fucking rent. That’s not the situation I’m talking about.’ 

He paused, since he was suddenly confused. ‘But all I want is the rent. Uncle Johnny…I mean…naturally, that’s a different issue.’ 

‘Lucky me. Don’t worry,’ she nodded. ‘I’ll get you the money somehow. I can try to borrow it from my roommate.’ 

‘Your roommate! There are two of you back there? When were you going to let me know about that?’ 

‘Liz is no trouble. She’s very stable. Low profile.’ 

Levi realized that he’d jumped to a conclusion: ‘OK....OK. Not this guy then. Another woman.’ 

‘Oh my God, no! Uncle Johnny’s not living with me. Although he talks about it all the fucking time. How he needs “pussy twenty-four seven”. Jesus: it’s like hanging around with a middle school kid.’ 

‘And he’s not really your uncle, is he?’ 

She shrugged. But not because she didn’t care. Because she was embarrassed to be talking to Levi about her “situation”. 

‘Not my uncle. Technically speaking. Somebody who knows my grandparents, and knows my family. I borrowed money from him when I was kind of in a tight spot.’ But she didn’t want to share any more of that story. ‘Which reminds me. I need a big favor.’ 

‘I can’t wait past the fifth of the month,’ Levi told her. 

‘Not that. I’ll settle up with you tomorrow, for sure, like I said. But—whatever happens—do not let this man pay my rent.’ 

‘He would do that?’ 

‘And then I’d be fucked for real—for good. If he’s paying for the house, then there’s no way he won’t end up moving in. He’ll think he owns me, and I’ll never get rid of him. If he asks you—now, or any other time—but especially now—tell him that I already paid you for the month, and you just forgot. OK?’ Levi noticed her looking over his shoulder: back toward the main aisle. ‘Jesus, looks like time’s up. Just do me that favor and I’ll give you a blowjob on the house...or something. Whatever you want.’ 

‘A blowjob?’ Levi asked. ‘What’s that? Like an oil change?’ 

The girl was so surprised she laughed involuntarily—not knowing whether to believe him or not. But, before she could elaborate, “Uncle Johnny” was there to take possession again. 

‘Is there a problem with the rent on that little shithole house?’ The cowpoke pulled a roll of bills, three fingers wide, out of his pocket. ‘If there’s any problem, then we can take care of it right here and right now.’ 

Once again, “Uncle Johnny” was talking so loudly that it was impossible for complete strangers to miss what he was saying. But he was basically nose-to-nose, now, with Levi: and didn’t see Sparkle’s fleeting expression of misery and humiliation. 

Levi motioned the old man to put his money away: ‘No...no. My apologies. I made a mistake. Sparkle was just reminding me that she dropped the check off late last month—she wanted to get a little bit ahead while she had the cash—and I forgot to put it in the book.’ 

‘Well get your head screwed on straight, son, and stop bothering honest folks!’ 

‘I apologize. It was my mistake—and I won’t let it happen again.’ 

There was a little more ritual complaining until the old timer finally seemed satisfied. Then the couple went off to do whatever they were going to do next: Sparkle looking back over her shoulder when she was sure her companion wasn’t looking—giving Levi a wink, and a “thumbs up” for good measure. 


After returning home, Levi thought it wouldn’t do any permanent harm to his immortal soul to research the meaning of “blowjob”—even though his minister was always reminding him, and everyone else in their small congregation, that the “so-called Internet” was a pure sink of corruption, and anyone worthy of the term Christian kept a safe distance from it. It was just that “blowjob” had come up a couple of times in the last month or so, and he was a little tired of people always appearing to be amused about his acquired ignorance of just about everything pertaining to sex. 

It was easy to spell (he assumed that it was all one word) and the term “blowjob” generated millions of hits. 

A simple concept: easy to understand. But—even after reading as much as he wanted to read—Levi wasn’t sure if it was something he wanted to have happen to him or not. 


After Midnight


After all was said and done, with one more day left in Rent Week, there was just one more check outstanding: from Dan and Cherry in House #B. 

Gordon was considering tossing them out along with Casey, according to his e-mail that morning. If Gordon could get two evictions, then he could jack up the rent for both properties—moving them closer to what the market would bear—and dispense with two tenants who flirted with being late every single time. 

Casey didn’t seem to know how to read a calendar. And Dan and Cherry didn’t seem to own a calendar. 

It was simpler for Levi to keep his graveyard schedule, even on his day off, so he headed over to House #B just after breakfast—about one in the afternoon. It was the seventh in a set of days that seemed designed to advertise how beautiful spring weather could be on the Great Plains—and he felt a lot of his old sentimental kinship with his hometown (the place where he was sure to spend the rest of his life) as he resolutely crunched up the gravel drive to the tiny four-room house. Just praying that Cherry would hear him coming and rush out with money. 

Instead, he started to feel that the gleaming day was a little tainted as he saw two commercial vehicles parked on the thin lawn in front of the rental. 

His tenant, Dan, worked at a feedlot—the logo prominent on the side of the pickup truck they gave him to drive—so neither of the visitors at House #B were Cherry’s husband. 

One was a plumber. The other a locksmith. 

But not the approved vendors for the apartments. Gordon was strict about that. He had his own list. 

The wooden door inside the storm door was covered with an American flag. No way to see into the living room. Nothing was locked. The storm door opened easily—he rapped hard on the inside door—and waited. 

And waited. 

He’d heard just the suggestion of noise before knocking, but—now that he was hovering hesitantly outsidethe sounds became much more noticeable. 

A kind of groaning. But rhythmical...in pulses...and definitely sounding like something that his minister would tell him was dangerous. 

Without the iron mandate of Rent Week, Levi would have simply walked away. 

But someone was definitely home. Light from inside was filtering through the bedroom curtain to his left. The privacy curtain, inside—the heavy one—was standing open, and the window was only defended with a kind of gauze that wouldn’t interfere with anyone’s understandable curiosity. All it took was a couple of small steps to see that the complicated sounds were coming from the “master bedroom” positioned at the front of the house. 

Where a naked backside was in motion. A hairy one. 

And other naked arms and legs on the bed as well. 

He didn’t knock again, and didn’t try to explain to himself what might be happening. Instead, he just left: hoping that no one was going to burst out the door, stark naked, and force a confrontation. 

He didn’t even know if anyone inside had even heard him. He’d heard rumors that, during such times, people lost track of what was happening around them. Maybe no one would remember that he’d been just outside. 

But he hadn’t gotten away clean. A little later in the day, Cherry—the “F” in the MMF threesome—dropped by to say that she’d heard him knocking that afternoon, and began a very awkward private conversation, lasting about twenty minutes. A conversation which, once again, included the word “blowjob”. 

After his online research, Levi was able to discuss it more intelligently. But Cherry’s offer didn’t settle anything. Gordon was the one making decisions, and he didn’t need her blowjobs. Now that he better understood the concept of oral sex, Levi guessed that Gordon was getting that action from someone else. 

Cherry seemed to think there were other things she could do to make the “rent problem” go away—but the conversation ended abruptly when another tenant came to the door to complain that there was no hot water in the laundry room. Levi went off to pursue that complaint, and Cherry seemed to let the whole matter go. Even though she and her husband still hadn’t produced a check. 

Levi’s ended the day anticipating trouble when Gordon called him in the morning—since the deposit account was still a few hundred dollars short. 

Maybe he would be fired. Maybe not. It he was, then he would be circulating through the quiet streets of Elsinore: looking for a roof over his own head—in the same pickle as Casey and her unfortunate baby. 

After a simple dinner, he still had a long night ahead of him. What he called his “vigil”. People who worked graveyards dealt with time off in different ways: since their time off was in a diurnal world that could force them to shift their lives around twelve hours every week. After landing the job at the Medical Center (admittedly he was making good money), Levi had to cope with this issue, so—after months of confusion, trying to shift back and forth—he stayed nocturnal all the time: staying awake until 5AM even on nights he didn’t work. 

In the winter months, this was melancholy: passing the dark, vacant, small hours before dawn inside his apartment. 

But summertime had its compensations. After the oppressive heat of the day spun off into the night sky, it was pleasant to adjourn out to the porch. 

Not an elegant place to hang out. Just a concrete platform with a shaky cast iron rail mounted on one side. But a pillow under his butt made it comfortable enough, and—with the living room light burning behind him—he could watch, and think, and read while the small-town streets grew quieter and emptier. 

He loved the smell of coffee, and the taste of it, ever since he was a kid. His strict religion put a lot of vices off limits. But coffee wasn’t one of them. Two or three pots of the stuff—“super strong”— would get him all the way through the night and these “vigils” brought him closer to Elsinore than any other time in his life. 

Moments of distinct clarity and affection. A comforting sense of place. Epiphanies, he thought. Revelations. Maybe even God speaking to him, in the way that the Holy Spirit sometimes spoke to people in very furtive ways. 

Elsinore belonged to him—and he belonged to it. It would be his town forever. 

When he was a child, he had thought as a child, and from time to time had wondered what it might be like to put this place behind them. 

Now he found comfort in the idea that the future looked a lot like the present. Which, in turn, looked quite a bit like the past. 

That’s what the “vigils” were giving him: even though they’d gotten off to a rough start in the beginning. The cops driving by alarmed to see someone sitting out on their porch at 3AM. Enough so that they’d gotten out of their cars to talk to him: finding out if he was all right. Wondering what was going on in that big house behind him. 

But they didn’t do that anymore. 

They just knew there was somebody a little weird at Gordon’s, and they hoped he would phone the PD if he saw something suspicious. 


The last night of Rent Week—more accurately the early morning of Rent Day—it was early in the “vigil” (around twelve forty-five) when Dan, Cherry’s husband, and the other tenant of House #B, came around the corner with a squarish kind of bottle and a couple of tumblers. 

He stood in the fringe of light from the house, and waited amiably. 

‘Got a second?’ he asked. Levi took that as a joke, since they both knew Elsinore folded up its sidewalks long before midnight. 

The amber fluid caught the light as Dan hefted the bottle in his direction. 

‘Care for a snort?’ (Dan looked like he’d already snorted a couple). 

‘No thanks. Full Bible Christians don’t drink.’ 

With the deliberation of someone who might be concentrating on his physical coordination, Dan set the bottle and the glasses on the top concrete step. 

‘You know, there was that whole water into wine business.’ 

‘The Savior didn’t drink,’ Levi explained. ‘So it couldn’t have been wine.’  

‘Then I think you can guess how boring those old weddings must’ve been.’ 

Dan hadn’t changed from work. His denim shirt was hanging loose outside his pants, carrying a faint aroma of manure, and he was still wearing thick clumsy boots that looked like they might have been carved out of wood. 

He did have something in his shirt pocket, though, that turned out to be a rent check. Dan carelessly handed that over, and then just as carelessly sat down on the step below Levi without being invited—before carelessly pouring a serious drink: almost filling a glass to the top. Since Levi had been just looking out at the empty street—not reading, or listening to music—Dan may have assumed that he wasn’t interrupting anything. 

‘Big cities, you know, they go all night.’ Dan paused to take a drink. ‘You ever been?’ 

Levi shook his head: ‘No. I’ve never been.’ 

’Take my word for it. They go all night. Little dumps like this just get real quiet. Except for wherever my wife is reeling in her next little playmate. I’d bet the farm she’s out at Sooner Station, probably. Ever been there?’ 

‘I know where it is. It’s a bar, right?’ 

‘Or just a nest of cockroaches in cowboy boots. Depending on your point of view. Ain’t changed much from when I knew it. Guys out there ain’t so particular. She’ll find somebody to go home with before last call. Count on it. She’ll be in his bed. Not in mine. And then, in the morning, pretend like that’s the way everybody does it. 

Levi didn’t really understand the point of this conversation. He considered getting up and walking back into the apartment. But there was nothing preventing Dan from just following him inside, and—if the guy was in a mood to talk—then Levi might as well listen. Helping other people with their troubles was a way of witnessing for the Lord: especially since Dan didn’t seem to deserve all the ugly things happening to him. 

‘Last call at Sooner Station. Last call for this marriage, too, if I want to be honest about it.’ 

Levi offered the obvious response: ‘I’m sorry....’ 

Dan shook his head: ‘Big fight this afternoon after I got home. Call it the mother of all fights. Since I was tired, and wondering how much more of her screwing around I needed to take.’ 

‘Did the police come?’ 

‘No. Nothing physical. But quite a few words that can’t be unsaid. Then she fluffed out the hair and put on the heels and the eyeliner.’ A long drink from the juice glass this time. ‘Then she told me, “By the way, if there’s one guy in town you can trust it’s the guy who manages these shitholes”. She gave me the whole story. If I’ve got it right, she opened up her shirt for you, showed you her tits, and you turned her down? Is that right? Do I have it right?’ 

Levi was eager to change the subject: ‘Gordon’s on me about money—’ 

Dan interrupted: ‘I know that much! Fucking fairy! But have I got it right? Is that what you did?’ 

‘What good does sex do me? And I don’t want my first time to be just a crazy money transaction,’ Levi continued. 

‘Your first time?’ Dan laughed. ‘Jesus Christ! Really? What are you? Twenty-two? Twenty-three?’ 

Levi tried to sound more calm and assured than he felt. Not defensive at all: ‘It’s what we believe. The path to Everlasting Life.’ 

‘But who’s that interested in living forever?’ Dan was reaching the bottom of his glass—and seemed to be talking almost to himself again—his expression more sly and teasing. ‘But maybe even you think this is all a little bit funny. This little bit of town. A little funny: depending on your sense of humor. Really…you got at least three girls selling pussy outta these apartments. And here you are—Full Bible boy—picking up rent in Tartland. Seriously, Levi, if you ever felt like updating your virgin status, one of those sluts in the house next door to us would probably take care of it for not much more than a hundred. Call it fifty even.’ 

Levi didn’t want to make it seem like he was bragging, but he didn’t get to talk about these topics very much: ‘One of them said I could have a blowjob if I wanted one....’ 

‘Well, see, there’s a start!’ Dan sounded encouraging. 

‘Or anything else. But I don’t know what “anything else” might be.’ 

‘I’d want it to be something where the girl’s facing away from you: that’s for sure. Those chicks in #C are the zitiest girls I ever seen. Seem to specialize in old riders just off the range.’ Dan shook his head. ‘Slut Central: the two of them under the same roof. Even if Cherry wasn’t getting ready to split—which she is, I guarantee it—I’ll be needing to move out and live somewhere else.’ 

Both men watched a woman old enough to be retired walking her dog on the other side of the street: considerately carrying a plastic bag in her hand. Although Levi couldn’t remember seeing her before, he gave her what he hoped was a re-assuring wave when she waved at him. The whole comfort of a small town was in people feeling safe, of course. Which made it easier for Levi to be honest with his visitor: ‘Gordon’s probably going to evict you anyway.’ 

‘Jesus, what’d we ever do to him?’ 

‘Market’s really tight for rentals right now. He thinks the rent’s too low.’ 

‘He could just ask us for more.’ 

‘He doesn’t like to be the bad guy.’ 

‘Is he happy for you to be the bad guy?’ 

‘He doesn’t want anybody to be the bad guy, really. Kind of clinical about it. Just economics, he says. It’s painless to make a change when somebody moves out. He’ll jack the rent on that basement place when the girl with the baby moves out. He’s got his heart set on evicting her, too.’ 

Dan nodded agreement: ‘Really. There’s another chick who’d blow you for not too much money.’ He paused, then asked: ‘Is that an OK place down there?’ 

‘I’m not sure. I’ve never seen it fixed up. A basement room. Not very big. But the guy up above is really quiet. Out of town a lot.’ 

When Levi told him the rent, Dan nodded sagely: ‘That’s about more what I had in mind. And you think Gordon’s gonna follow through on that: getting her out of there?’ 

‘It’s a done deal. I just don’t know what we’re gonna do after she’s gone. I don’t think the regular housekeeper will even want to go in. Probably need to be fumigated. Roach paradise.’ 

‘I know a guy who does disaster cleanup. Tornadoes, and things. He’d probably give you a good price. If it’s that bad.’ 

‘It’s that bad,’ Levi confirmed. 

The next ten minutes had Dan pouring himself another drink—and Levi refusing another drink. 

‘It’s good stuff,’ Dan said. ‘Doesn’t taste like alcohol at all. A little too sweet, really.’ 

‘That’s not the point, really. The point’s honoring Christ crucified.’ 

‘Since someone’s always watching?’ 

‘Someone always is watching, as a matter of fact.’ After another pause in the conversation, Levi wanted to settle something in his mind. ‘Would it be OK if I asked you a personal question?’ 

‘Well—I’m mostly hammered now, so you might as well.’ 

‘This whole thing with Cherry. Aren’t you mad about it? Seems like you should be.’ 

‘Well that gets back to the whole basement apartment,’ Dan replied, laughing when Levi looked at him in confusion. ‘After you spend two years in the joint, just about any place seems huge. So I can live in a basement.’ 

‘The penitentiary? What was the charge?’ 

‘I really fucked somebody up. And not the first time. Then it was two years in the joint—five years’ probation—and three years with a counsellor who finally talked me into letting go of things a little bit.’ Dan very deliberately put the cap back on his bottle. ‘If I raise my hand to a woman, I’ll never be free again. Simple as that. And I saw plenty of signals when I was first getting together with Cherry that should have told me I was buying into a lost cause. I looked the truth right in the face. But I didn’t want to see the truth. Now if I go back in the joint, then I make everybody who tried to help me look foolish. So I’ll look foolish, instead. Let her go. And, if I’m desperate for pussy, there’s always one of the gals in House #C. I’ll just give one of them some money, throw a blanket over her head, and it’ll probably all work out.’ 

Dan seemed to have trouble keeping his feet after he got back to ground level. 

‘You want me to hang on to all that glass for you?’ Levi asked. 

‘No, I should be OK. Keep me posted on that apartment, all right? And I can give you the number for that disaster guy. He does good work, and he’d probably give you some sort of a deal.’ 


Levi closed the conversation, and his visitor wandered off into the night. 

Tartland, Levi thought. It was just as well his minister didn’t know what he was up to, managing these apartments. But maybe a better way to look at it was that men would always be men—and a few women would always be there to take advantage of what men wanted to do. 

The Savior Himself had forgiven harlots. Levi wanted his life to reflect the presence of the Risen Christ, so—in the end—he didn’t want to be too hard on these people. Rent Week was over, the final rent check was in his pocket, and it seemed as though he’d kept his job for another month. 

Six o’clock was his bedtime in the summer months: so he lingered on through the sultry, pensive nightturning in with a clear conscience, and reasonable hopes for the future, just about an hour after dawn. 

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