Machiavelli Jones had one ambition, to get out of the shit hole he lived in.
His home was no more than a square room with a bathroom attached. The room reeked of mildew mixed with the odors of sweat, urine and stale beer that wafted up from piles of unwashed clothes that laid about in mounds on an old tattered beige carpet. Empty beer cans were stacked like pyramids in every corner. The once white refrigerator had turned gray from lack of cleaning and the hotplate that sat on a small rickety table was covered in grease and bits of dried food. A small sink next to the refrigerator was full of unwashed dishes, pot and pans. The bed was pushed against the wall below the only window which was at ground level. The stuffing in the mattress stuck out through several holes. There was also a single white wicker chair that faced an old television set with a DVD player attached to it on a metal stand. In one corner there was a dresser with four drawers and a large cracked mirror affixed to the top of it. On the floor in front of the dresser were two forty pound black dumbbells. On a small stand next to the chair was his phone.
It rang and he picked it up from its cradle and said into it in his usual gruff manner, “This is Mack. Whaddya want?”
He listened, grunted bear-like a few times, then hung up. “I gotta find a way to get out of this shit hole,” he mumbled.
After taking a long swig of beer from the can he grasped in his meaty fist, he placed the can on the floor next to the chair he was sitting in and stood up and scratched his balls. He turned and looked at himself in the mirror and inflated his well formed pectoral muscles and held his arms up and made his melon sized biceps bulge. The crack in the mirror divided his face so he moved his head and smiled at his reflection. Aside from having a missing upper front tooth, he wasn’t at all unhappy with his looks; a square jaw, thick lips, aquiline nose, dark green eyes, heavy well shaped black eyebrows. He ran his hand through his black hair and bent down and picked up his gray sleeveless button down shirt and put it on. Unable to find clean underwear he put on his gray work pants and sat on the edge of his bed and put on his socks and work boots. Before leaving his room he turned off the porn DVD he had been watching, looked at himself again in the mirror, then walked out into the building’s storage units closing the door to his room behind him.
He picked up his bright red tool box that he kept by the elevator, and pushed the button to bring the elevator down to him. When it arrived he pushed the lattice collapsible gate aside and stepped in and pushed the button for the fourth floor. He closed the gate and the elevator slowly rose. The sound of the mechanisms that lifted the elevator reverberated in the shaft. At the fourth floor he had to yank hard to open the gate. He stepped out into the dimly lit hallway and saw Mrs. Garner standing in her doorway waiting for him.
She was dressed in a bright red kimono with elaborate designs of green dragons and strange blue and pink birds. She was wearing a Geisha style wig with two plastic chopsticks protruding from the bun on top that sat askew on her oval head. Tufts of gray hair stuck out around the edge of the wig. The fire engine red lipstick she had put on had smeared around her mouth making the contrasting white powder she had on her face look like she had dipped her head in flour beforehand. She had used heavy black eyeliner trying to make her eyes look Japanese, but instead she looked like a befuddled cat.
“You got a leak?” he said as he walked up to her.
“Under the sink in my bathroom,” she said. “Lord Byron refuses to go in there to use the potty because the floor is all wet.”
“You were told to get rid of that cat,” he said.
“I know, but no one will take him. He’s sixteen years old. I’m certain he’s going to die any day now,” she said.
He brushed past her and walked into her living room. Everything in it was Oriental, but not exclusive to any particular country. Two Japanese screens stood at each end of a bamboo sofa piled with silk embroidered pillows as if framing it. Large red Chinese lanterns with gold fringe hung from the ceiling. Porcelain figurines of elephants, monkeys and panda bears cluttered every available tabletop surface. The walls were painted red and were crowded with framed prints of Buddhist temples and variations of Mt. Fuji. The room smelled of jasmine and eucalyptus.
“Would you like a cup of oolong tea first?” she asked as she shuffled across the straw mat flooring as she followed closely behind him.
“I don’t drink tea,” he said. “It makes me puke.”
He pushed the door to the bathroom open and looked down at the dry floor. Lord Byron was lying in his litter box grooming his scraggly tail.
“I thought you said you had a leak and your floor was wet,” Mack said, turning to Mrs. Garner who was rapidly fluttering a Japanese paper fan in front of the lower half of her face.
“I lied,” she giggled.
Mack sat the toolbox on the floor and lazily scratched the thick bunch of hairs in his underarm. “Why?” he said.
She lowered the fan. “I heard the first floor apartment was going to be available soon. Is that true?”
“Yeah, Mr. Needlemeyer is going into a nursing home,” Mack said. “What of it?”
“I’m not young anymore and that elevator door gets stuck, sometimes for hours before I can get out, and all the smells from the alley drift right in if I open a window. It stinks,” she said.
“The smell from the alley ain’t any better down there,” he said. “Two other tenants in the building are ahead of you on the list if a first floor apartment becomes available.”
“I’d give anything to move down there,” she said placing her hand on his chest and running her black lacquered fingernail around one of his buttons.
He looked down at the brown liver spots on the back of her boney, wrinkled hand.
It was then that the idea struck him.
“Offer me something I might actually want and I’ll think about it,” he said.
“Is five hundred dollars a good offer?” she said.
“It’ll do for a start,” he said as be picked up his toolbox and turned to leave. “Put the money in a plain envelope and slip it under my door some time today and I’ll move you to the top of the list.”
“Is that a promise?” she said.
“Sure, but you got to get rid of that cat this afternoon to seal the deal,” he said over his shoulder as he neared the front door.
“I’ll have Lord Byron put to sleep if it will get me that apartment,” she said as he went out the door.
Lying naked on the sweat and skin oil stained mattress, Mack watched the feet of passersby going past the window. A cockroach crawled up the wall by the bed and he smashed it with the palm of his hand and then wiped his hand on the dingy sheet that lay crumpled on the floor by the bed. The portable fan sitting on the floor slowly rotated from side to side as it blew the room’s odor-filled air up and down the length of his sweating body. The television was on and the sounds of sexual moaning mixed with frequent expletives from the DVD “Cherry Rides a Horse” had become like white noise.
He glanced over at the long list of things needing to be done tacked onto cork board screwed into the wall by the door and yawned and stretched. Swinging his feet around he sat up on the edge of the mattress and let out a resounding fart. Waving away the resulting odor he stood up and went to the mirror. Striking a body builder competition pose he admired the sinewy muscles of his arms and abdomen. He was about to pick up the dumbbells when the phone rang.
“This is Mack. Whaddya want?” he said into it.
He listened for a minute, making pig-like snorts, and then hung up. After picking up his pants and sleeveless shirt from the floor he put them on then sat on the bed and put on his socks and boots. He left his room and went to the elevator and stepped in and pushed the button for the fifth floor.
On the fifth floor a recessed light in the hallway ceiling was flickering. At the door with the numbers 503 on it he stopped and knocked loudly.
Mr. Peterson opened the door. He was wearing a bright purple smoking jacket with black leather lapels. His face was gaunt and pale and his body was almost skeletally thin. A meerschaum pipe was dangling from his lower lip. He looked Mack up and down. “A true specimen of masculine virility,” he said.
“You said your garbage disposal isn’t working,” Mack said gruffly.
“Funny about that,”Mr. Peterson said. “It’s working just fine now. I would have called you right back but I hoped we could talk.”
“About what?” Mack said.
“Come in out of the hallway. The walls have ears,” Mr. Peterson said, stepping aside and waving Mack in. He closed the door. “Please sit down.”
Mack sat in a brown leather high back chair and placed his toolbox on the floor at his feet. He propped his feet on the toolbox and looked around the room.
Cases with glass fronts with insects of all types pinned on white boards inside each one hung on every wall. There were two large mahogany tables stacked with large books. A divan with a bright floral print was against one wall. Another high back chair faced the one Mack was sitting in. The room reeked of sickeningly sweet pipe tobacco and a smokey haze floated in the air.
Mr. Peterson sat in the other chair. “There’s a rumor going around that the Needlemeyer apartment will soon be vacated. Is this true?”
Mack reached into his shirt and scratched his hairy chest. “Yeah, it’s true. What of it?”
“As you know I’m second on the list should a first floor apartment become available,” Mr. Peterson said. “A first floor would be highly desirable for entertaining guests. What could I do, that could be done with total secrecy, that could get me moved to the top of the list?”
“That depends on what you can offer,” Mack said.
Mr. Peterson squirmed uneasily in the chair. “Would five hundred dollars be an appropriate incentive?”
Mack gazed into Mr. Peterson’s rheumy eyes. “I would need to get it right away.”
“I just happen to have that amount available,” Mr. Peterson said.
“Give me the cash and we have a deal,” Mack said.
Mr. Peterson got out of his chair and went to a table and opened a coffee table art book and took out five one hundred dollar bills. He handed the money to Mack.
Mack stood up and counted the bills. “Okay, you’re at the top of the list.”
“Shouldn’t we shake on it or something to seal the deal,” Mr. Peterson said.
“Sure,” Mack said holding out his hand. Like taking candy from a baby, he thought.
Mr. Peterson put his frail hand in Mack’s. Mack wrapped his hand around Mr. Peterson’s.
“You have an amazing grip,” Mr. Peterson said. “The Forked Fungus Beetle has an amazing grip also. The males use it to hold on to the females during courtship and mating.”
“We’re not mating,” Mack said, quickly letting loose of Mr. Peterson’s hand. He stood up and picked up his toolbox.
At the opened door as Mack was leaving, Mr. Peterson said, “When I move into that apartment you must come to one of my dinners. My friends would so enjoy observing you.”
Stepping out of the elevator Mack’s nostrils were assaulted with a fog of cheap perfume. He sat the tool box down and looked down the dark aisle between the tenant’s storage units. Mrs. Carwell stepped out of the shadows. Her silver hair piled on top of her head like a bee hive glistened in the pale light. She walked toward Mack, moving as if her body joints had all become disconnected; every part of her moved independently. She was wearing a summer dress much too young for her advanced age. As she stepped into the full light where Mack was standing she raised a lit cigarette to her peach colored lips and took a drag.
Blowing out a ring of smoke, she said, “I want Mr. Needlemeyer’s apartment, Mack. What do I need to do to get it?”
“You’re far down on the list,” Mack said.
“Lists are made to be rearranged,” she said. “I’ll give you five hundred dollars to put me at the top of the list. All my friends have first floor apartments and I’m tired of them turning up their noses at me because I have a third floor apartment.”
“It would have to be our secret,” Mack said.
“My lips are sealed,” she said as put the cigarette between her lips.
“Do you have the money on you?” Mack said.
“Certainly Mr. Jones,” she said. “It’s Mr. Machiavelli Jones isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. What of it?” he said
“Such a unique name,” she said. “Did they call you Mack when you were a child?”
“No, I got that name while I was in prison,” he said. “You want my life history or the apartment?” he said.
She reached into a pocket in her dress and pulled out a wad of money. “This cinches the deal, right?” she said as she handed him the money.
He quickly counted the one hundred dollar bills. Seven of them. Just enough. “Yeah the deal is cinched,” Mack said.
She pushed the button on the elevator and when it arrived wrestled with the gate to get it open. She stepped in the elevator leaving a contrail of cigarette smoke behind her.
Mack watched the elevator rise, then opened the door to his room. A plain envelope was on the floor. He picked it up and looked inside. There were five one hundred dollar bills.
Morning light shone through the window onto Mack’s bed. The fan whirred and Cherry moaned loudly from the blaring television. Mack laid on the bed sipping the last drops from a warm can of beer.
There’s no hurry, he thought. I’ll be out of here before they figure it out.
He scratched his pubic hairs hoping he hadn’t caught another case of crabs from that twenty-dollar an hour prostitute on 64th Street.
A sudden loud banging on the door startled him. He jumped up, dropped the can on the floor, slipped on his pants, and went to the door. “Who is it?”
There was no answer. He waited a moment then slowly opened the door and peeked out.
Joe Garner, the 300 pound muscle-bound son of Mrs. Garner, shoved the door wide open, pushing Mack backward onto the floor on his ass. Joe rushed into the room followed by a dozen residents, all carrying a pot, pan or rolling pin. Among the residents were Mrs. Garner, Mr. Peterson and Mrs. Carwell.
“You tried to cheat my mom and some of these fine folks out of their money,” Joe said, his fist an inch away from Mack’s nose.
“You didn’t think we’d find out, did you?” Mrs. Carwell said. “You should have known no one keeps a secret in this building. Where’s our money?”
“I spent it already,” Mack said.
“Why are the good looking ones always such liars?” Mr. Peterson said.
“Tear the place apart,” Joe said.
The residents ripped and scattered Mack’s clothes, tore apart the mattress on his bed, broke down the stacked beer cans and overturned his garbage. Nothing was left untouched.
“The money’s nowhere to be found,” Mrs. Garner said.
Joe stepped back from Mack. “Teach him a lesson.”
The residents descended on him, pummeling him with the pots, pans and rolling pins until Mack lay bruised and unconscious on the floor.
It was late afternoon before Mack awoke. He sat up and glanced around at his demolished room. He crawled over his strewn and shredded belongings across the floor and into the bathroom. Unsteadily, he stood up and lowered his pants and sat on the toilet. After several minutes of grunting and with the assistance of his prodding fingers, he pulled from his butt a rolled plastic sandwich bag that contained the money. At least I learned something while in prison, he thought.
He turned on the bathroom sink faucet and washed off the bag, took out the money and shoved it in his pocket. He splashed some water on his face then went back out. Among his things he found his boots, an intact shirt and the copy of “Cherry Rides a Horse.” He put on his boots and shirt and tucked the DVD under his arm, and then took the elevator to the first floor and walked out of the building.
A block down the street his pubic area itched like crazy.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over a hundred short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960.