Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 380 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had six collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
The Occupants Upstairs
By Steve Carr
My brother, Tom, and his girlfriend, Judy, both about to turn nineteen, were married in a civil ceremony at the courthouse by a marriage commissioner that Tom found online. The ceremony – if it could be called that – took place in a small room off of the main hallway. The room had a wood bench, six metal folding chairs and a podium. It smelled of furniture polish and floor cleaner. It was dimly lit and its walls were paneled in dark walnut. A picture of Abraham Lincoln was the only thing that hung on any of the walls.
They weren’t required to have a witness but I went with them because her parents wouldn’t and neither would my mother. I was seventeen, about to turn eighteen. Tom and Judy’s best friends, Russell and Diedre were supposed to meet us at the courthouse, but they never showed up. My brother and I wore the only suits we owned. Judy wore a light pink dress with a corsage pinned to it that Tom had given her. She held a posy of violets with sprigs of baby’s breath. The wedding took less than five minutes, including the time it took the commissioner to stop the proceedings several times to hack up globs of phlegm that he spat into his handkerchief. Afterwards we had hamburgers and cokes at a diner and then rode the bus home since the car was broken down. They sat close together in the seat in front of me whispering and giggling in each other’s ear, while I stared out the window, musing that I wouldn’t likely be seeing those same sites again before going into the Army.
At our house, Tom opened the side door leading to the upstairs apartment, picked up Judy, and carried her over the threshold and up the stairs. I shut the door, went around to the front of the house and went in. My mother was lying on the sofa with a wet cloth over her eyes. She raised the cloth from over one bloodshot eye and gazed at me.
“They’ve actually done it, haven’t they?” she asked mournfully.
Through the ceiling came the sound of Tom and Judy racing about their apartment, chasing one another about like squirrels. Their laughter was so easily heard that I could separate Tom’s baritone laughs from Judy’s high-pitched giggles.
My mother placed the cloth back over her exposed eye and laid her arm across her face.
Although we were only nine months apart in age, Tom and I had very little in common. The morning of the next day after he had gotten married and I heard him coming down the steps, his boots thudding on every step, I was reminded again how different we were, even in the way we walked. He and Judy quit high school in their senior year. Tom found work repairing and selling washing machines and clothes dryers for a company located a block away. He wore a dark olive-green uniform,work boots, and a tool belt strapped around his waist. He and Judy were heavy smokers and his uniform always smelled of cigarette smoke. I tried smoking once and ended up puking and sick to my stomach so I never tried again.
Tom came through the door in the living room that led to the stairs to the second floor. The elderly man, Mr. Pokash, who had lived in the upstairs apartment previously always came in and out of our place through that door, so it was always unlocked. A few days before he got married, Tom signed the lease on the apartment and had the lock on the door changed that same day. He and Judy could come and go in and out of the downstairs apartment, but it was made clear without it being said, that my mother and I weren’t intended to enter their apartment as easily.
“What are they planning on hiding up there?” my mother grumbled the day before they were married when she realized the door was locked.
Tom came into the kitchen where I was seated at the table eating a bowl of Lucky Charms and went straight to the coffee pot. He poured a cup of coffee, took a sip, and let out a loud sigh of satisfaction.
“You can’t get a cup of that upstairs?” I asked, pushing a green shamrock under the milk with my spoon.
“We don’t have a coffee pot,” he answered.
The two of them had used what little money they had to buy some linens and towels, and an old sofa. My brother emptied his bedroom, taking most of it upstairs, and they raided the boxes my mother kept in the basement and found dishware and silverware along with an old pair of curtains and some tarnished brass picture frames. Judy had her vanity dresser brought over from where she had lived with her parents by Tom and a friend of his in the back of his friend’s pick up truck.
He took another sip, making a slurping sound. “Where’s Mom” he asked, peeking over the edge of the cup.
She had her breakfast before I had gotten out of bed and when I came out she was already gone. “I think she said something about throwing herself off a bridge,” I said. I scooped up the soggy shamrock and shoved it into my mouth.
He lowered the cup. “Do you think she’ll ever grow to like Judy?”
“Not as your wife, she won’t.”
I was a junior in high school when Tom brought Judy home to meet Mom and me for the first time. Mr. Pokash was sitting in the overstuffed chair in our living room nibbling on one of my mother’s oatmeal raising cookies the first. He didn’t have any teeth and had left his false teeth upstairs when he came down to watch Bonanza on our television since his was in the repair shop. Unable to chew on the raisins, and choking each time he tried to swallow one, he spit them into his hand and held them cradled in the palm of his hand as if they had some value.
My mother was seated on the sofa and I was lying on the floor.
Tom was holding tightly onto Judy’s hand when he led her into the room. I recognized her from school where she and Tom were seniors although I had never met her. She was very pretty; petite and blonde. She was wearing tight jeans, a button down dark green blouse and open toed sandals. The glittery silver polish on her toenails drew my eyes to her white slender feet and held me fixated on them for several minutes during which I heard nothing that was said or saw anything else. When she was introduced to me, shaking me from my sexual fantasies that involved her feet, she wiggled her fingers at me as if she was tickling me, or so I imagined.
“You write for the school paper, don’t you?” she said as of she had just met the President of the United States.
“Yes,” I stammered, stunned that she knew that.
“I wish I could write,” she said with a sing-song giggle.
I suddenly felt as if I was watching an actress playing a part. The intelligence that radiated from her watchful eyes as she scanned the shabby condition of the living room belied the dumb-blonde persona she was attempting to project. I don’t think our status of being near poverty surprised her, but I think our home was the closest she had ever gotten to it.
Tom put his arm around her waist and pulled him against his side. “I’ll do the writing for both of us when we’re married,” he said.
Mom got up from the sofa, wordlessly left the room, and went into the kitchen. A moment later there was the sound of a pot being slammed on the top of the stove.
Tom introduced her to Mr. Pokash who rose slightly, gave a slight bow, and then flopped back onto the chair. “Marriage is serious business,” he said.
“Oh, we know that,” she said, “but when I met Tom it was love at first sight.”
Mr. Pokash bit into a cookie and spat a raisin into his hand. “Poppycock,” he said.
My mother came back into the room. The expression on her face was as placid as a porcelain mask. I knew my mother’s moods and reactions. She was repressing her immediate and inexplicable dislike of Judy and even more her anger about Tom’s obvious infatuation with his girlfriend who he had kept hidden from us for months, offering only occasional hints that he had met someone. Mom had a plate of cookies in her hands. She held it out to them. “You and my Tom are going to be graduating in a few months. What are you going to do after that?” she asked, looking at one and then the other.
“We’re quitting school,” Tom announced as he took a cookie from the plate.
Mom stared at Tom for several moments and then fixed her gaze on Judy. Her emotions went from a seething simmer to a full boil in a matter of seconds. “Get out of my house you brainless slut,” she screamed.
“You can’t talk like that to the woman I love,” Tom bellowed.
Mom’s head snapped back as if she had been slapped. She threw the plate of cookies across the room and then stormed into her bedroom, slammed the door, and didn’t come out for two days.
Tom and Judy quit school as they said they would a few months before they were due to graduate. Tom got a job at a gas station while Judy spent her days lounging about at the neighborhood pool perfecting her tan. At the beginning of that summer I worked three days a week washing dishes at a nursing home. It was about that same time that Mr. Pokash’s health took a turn for the worse. Most evenings I carried up to him on a tray the supper that my mother fixed for him and sat on his sofa as he ate and watched his television that blinked off and back on at times as if it were attached to a toggle switch. He sat in his old high back cushioned chair, bent over the tray, and noisily shoveled the food into his mouth. He was eighty-two and his only living relatives, two nephews, lived on the outskirts of the city but never came to see him.
Maybe it was Tom’s unspoken annoyance that Judy was doing nothing to earn money for their planned marriage, but in late July he arranged for her to stay with Mr. Pokash during the day and help my mother with doing the old man’s laundry, clean his apartment, and fix his lunches. When not at the nursing home, I stayed upstairs during the day, ostensibly to keep Mr. Pokash company, but Mr. Pokash knew the truth.
“She’s your brother’s girl,” he said more than once when she was out of earshot as he wagged his finger at me.
“Mind your own business,” I’d tell him, laughing, as if it was all some kind of joke.
She knew nothing about cooking, even rudimentary things like boiling soup seemed beyond her comprehension, or so she let on. When I wasn’t there, she’d go downstairs and get the lunches my mother prepared and carry them back upstairs. While he ate she filed her nails or washed her hair in his kitchen sink. I’d rush home from the nursing home, run upstairs and inhale the fragrance of her coconut scented shampoo that hung in the air for hours even after she left to go home.
To Tom’s consternation, Judy’s attempt to care of Mr. Pokash did nothing to improve my mother’s impression of her.
“She’s a train wreck waiting to happen, and it’s going to happen at your brother’s expense,” she said of Judy.
My seventeenth birthday in late June came and went with little fanfare. I made up my mind to join the Army and went to see the Army Recruiter but didn’t mention it to my mother or Tom. I told Judy who swore to keep it a secret. She kissed me on both cheeks leaving on them pale pink lipstick imprints of her lips.
“You’re going to come home a hero,” she gushed.
In the moment as I inhaled her perfume, I believed her.
Many evenings Tom and Judy went out on double dates with Russell and Diedre. Mr. Pokash had an old car that he sold to Tom for a few hundred dollars, but like Mr. Pokash’s television, it needed constant repairs. Russell was six-foot-six and had been on the school basketball team. He was friends with Judy before she met Tom and came from similar affluent circumstances. His car was taken from him after his second arrest for driving drunk. Diedre was like Russell’s shadow, always hanging on him, but without any personality of her own.
It took me aback and I thought I had misunderstood when Mr. Pokash said to me in a conspiratorial tone, “That tall boy comes to see your brother’s girlfriend too often.”
“So what if he does?” Judy replied when I mentioned it to her. “We play gin rummy or take walks while Mr. Pokash takes his afternoon nap.” She said it with such innocence and nonchalance I forgot why the secrecy of it had rattled me, but fearing it would stir up trouble, I kept it from Tom and my mother.
The weekend before my senior year of school began and before Russell and Diedre began college, Tom borrowed Mr. Pokash’s car and we drove to the coast. I sat in the back seat squashed against the door by Russell and Diedre who argued the entire way. Her voice was tight and squeaky, like a mouse, but her words were the most forceful I had heard her speak.
“It’s either her or me,” she said.
I had no idea who the “her” was, but hearing it made Judy turn her head and glare at Russell.
Then Tom and Judy got into an argument about her relationship with my mother.
“You always take your mother’s side,” she complained.
“I wouldn’t have to if you tried harder,” he replied.
At the beach everyone staked out their territory and for the rest of the day not much was said by anyone. During the drive home the atmosphere inside the car was icy. When we arrived home Tom pulled into the driveway just as an ambulance was leaving, taking Mr. Pokash to the hospital.
My mother was standing in the front yard. “He fell down the stairs,” she said, her voice trembling.
My senior year of high school went by quietly and quickly. With my mother’s begrudging approval she signed the papers for me to enlist in the Army, although I couldn’t actually join until I was eighteen, but I took the physical and signed the delayed entry program papers. Mr. Pokash was diagnosed as having a stroke which may have precipitated his fall and was moved to a rehab hospital where he lay paralyzed. The upstairs apartment remained his, but other than the times Tom and Judy played house in it and secretly – or so they thought – slept in his bed, it was eerily quiet. Tom worked a variety of different jobs, most requiring some kind of mechanical ability, until he landed the job repairing washing machines. Judy spent as much time at our house as she did at her own home, but only while Tom was home. He served as a buffer between his girlfriend and my mother who were openly hostile toward one another.
“Don’t you have streets to walk?” my mother screamed at her once when Judy accidentally spilled a Coke on the sofa.
Judy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gall, came to the house one time, a few days before the marriage. They sat on opposite ends of the sofa not acknowledging each other’s existence, but agreed on one thing: “We don’t want our daughter marrying your no-good son.”
My mother threw them out.
A week before the wedding, Mr. Pokash died. His nephews showed up the next morning and emptied his apartment.
“We loved your uncle,” my mother told them as they got into their U-Haul van.
“He molested us when we were children,” one of them replied, and then they drove off.
The afternoon of the day before I was to leave to begin Basic Training, with the thoughts of Judy in the pink dress she wore to get married in still fresh on my mind, I heard heavy footsteps coming from the upstairs that I knew weren’t Tom’s. I had seen him leave for work that morning. Mom and I were sitting in the kitchen drinking lemonade and we both glanced up at the same time.
“Its started already,” she said.
“Her having men up there while your brother is at work,” she replied. “I knew she was a tramp the first time I laid eyes on her.”
I could feel my cheeks turn red. I had fallen in love with her but I never allowed myself to dwell on it. I quickly rose from the table and rushed into the living room. When I tried to open the door leading to the upstairs I found it locked. I began pounding on the door with both fists. A few moments later I could hear Judy’s footsteps as she came down the stairs. The door clicked from the other side and then it opened.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her eyes wide with alarm.
“You cant hide what you’re doing,” I yelled, my emotions racing with equal parts anger and jealousy. I pushed her aside and ran up the stairs. In their living room a man in a light gray uniform with a Bergman’s Televisions patch on the back was installing a new television set.
Judy came up behind me. “Before he got sick, Mr. Pokash gave us money as an engagement gift and we held on to it to buy a television and they’re just now delivering it,” she said. “What did you think I was hiding?”
The next morning my mother stayed in bed and didn’t speak to me before I left for the Army. Tom and Judy drove me to the recruiting station where I was to leave for Basic Training along with other new enlistees. She wore a bright blue blouse, tight-fitting jeans and open-toed sandals. Her toenails were painted gold with flecks of green.