Tartland
Chapter 1: Expectation

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.

Expectation.

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 page 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 f•©k 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 f•©king 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—’ ‘F•©k 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 motherf•©ker! You motherf•©ker!’ 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, motherf•©ker! Bible motherf•©ker!’ She went back to her game console: frantic with grief. ‘Get out! Get out!’ She ran her fingers through her hair.

‘How the f•©k 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 f•©k up! I don’t have anything to do with your Jesus! Shut the f•©k 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 f•©k 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?’ ‘F•©k you! That little piece of shit is not my problem, so just shut the f•©k 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 f•©king game back on!’ ‘I know enough to tell you—’ ‘Turn the f•©king 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 f•©k 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.

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Story tagged with:
Coming of Age / Humor / Religion / Diary /