My wife and I are old-timers in our small west Los Angeles apartment building; we have lived here for five years. I know the names of two humans and one dog living in the 15 units surrounding us. I'm told this is normal in the big city.
All in all, we lucked out with this place. When friends complained about their buildings, we bragged about ours. Two things stood out: First, we had our manager, an energetic New Zealander named Margaret with two autistic sons and a zest for gardening. She was competent and friendly, and with her handy husband took care of any issue we had. The second was the building's central courtyard, which Margaret diligently kept tottering just on the charming side of overgrown.
Passing through this courtyard was a daily touch of something simple and artful, like the hummingbirds that hovered around the little bird feeder every summer. Being observant there was always rewarded; leaves, bugs, and birds, changing every day. I grew so attached to the winsome bundle of Morning Glory wrapped around a small bush that I even published a poem about it. Oh, and for years a couple of doves returned there annually for their spring vacation. Tell me, is your courtyard a love nest for birds that coo? Ours was.
Then the owner, an ancient lady whose late husband had constructed the building in the 60s, finally died. Not long after, Margaret's husband began making long trips down south. He had bought and restored a boat, Margaret told us before she and the boys were to depart, so that the family could sail back to New Zealand. What a way to live!
Instead of hiring a new on-site manager, the owner's next of kin decided to personally supervise their new property. Technically, it was the grown-grandson Hank of Podunk, Nevada, who was appointed manager, but I never did glimpse him. This was not so with his mother, Golden Belle, who drove in from Podunker, Nevada to check things out. She was set to stay for a week, but like an obnoxious guest, stayed for five months.
We did not immediately dislike the dumpy, fully-blonde, octogenarian. In fact, we considered the introductory letter she hand-wrote, xeroxed, and tucked into all of our screen doors, amusing. It was written on the dead owner's outdated stationary, had drawings of a lighthouse, the sun behind a couple of skinny, crooked mountains, and was dated "February 1, 2016, year of our Lord". It began "Beloved Tenants," ended "Enjoy your stay," and loosely adopted the metaphor of Golden Belle as "the Captain of our ship," who "reside[sic] on Deck #12". Let it be said that the sailors on deck nine studied her words closely, reading them aloud several times and in different voices.
Despite the enthusiasm of her introduction, it soon became clear that Golden Belle had trouble adjusting to us apartment-dwellers because days after her arrival she undertook to change our ways.
It started with a notice near the building's back exit excoriating the mystery ruffian who'd left a cigarette butt there. The letter ended with the sign-off: "The Bell has Rung!". Next was a note -- topped by the time it was written: 6AM -- reminding us that the "Laundry Room trash Basket is for: Lint only. Not wrappings - towels etc." There was also a drawing of a stinky towel and her now-classic sign-off. Other missives followed and yes, they were all filled with peculiar capitalization, illustrations, and the fervent self-righteousness a holy warrior reserved for the unsaved hordes.
These admonitions were calmly ignored, though it is true that some brave resistance fighter took to adding whimsical doodles and post-scripts to her notes, as well as finding and deliberately planting old cigarette butts near the building's entrances. My ire was not truly awakened until The Bell aimed her puritanical gaze on our lush, wanton courtyard. One morning, about a month into her stay, she waylaid me on the way to my car and began discharging things like "This courtyard is a real mess, isn't it?" "I can't believe we let it go for so long," and "I'm going to fix it." Becoming a murderer occurred to me right then, but I had to get to work!
She spent the next four months wrecking our cherished courtyard with the help of a withered, barely ambulant man (husband? servant? We don't know!), and a bevy of part-time laborers. Even for a novice gardener, she did a terrible job -- chopping down and tearing out established flora willy-nilly with replacements that were pretty much DOA. And then, randomly, I guess she decided that she was done (both with the courtyard and with us) because with nary a farewell Golden Belle got into her old Cadillac and set sail for home.
I don't know what the other neighbors thought of the courtyard situation because we barely see each other, much less communicate. I do know that between Golden Belle's arrival and the sale of the building to its current absentee owner (and faceless management company), the screenwriter downstairs became paralyzed after a fall on the beach, the moody realtor in the second floor apartment across from ours moved out, as did the cute Serbian couple who lived under her. The young ladies, who live adjacent to the couple, graduated from college, and the guy with glasses above them got a roommate. Andrew, an entrepreneur who lives downstairs, participated in a panel at my library and did a good job. Also, the baby belonging to Eric and his wife, who live in the apartment next to ours, turned one.
By the way, when we first moved in, Eric left a green tea Kit-Kat bar from his trip to Japan on our door handle. When I rang to say thanks, he acknowledged that it was actually intended for the school-age daughter of the librarian living beneath us who used to live in our apartment. But he let us keep it, and I respectfully remember his name (though he has surely forgotten mine). The Smokers (everyone calls them "The Smokers") from downstairs continue to have their TV constantly on and smoke with their door open, and a poodle named Kona has moved in next door to us.
I don't know what our neighbors thought of Golden Belle, but anyway, what could we do but go on with our lives? Even the doves came back this year. I should move on, shouldn't I? Let go of things I can't control and all of that. Still, every day I pass the spot where the small bush used to be and I can't just forget that the Morning Glory is not there.
OLEG KAGAN is a writer and librarian from Los Angeles. His work has been published in Frogpond, cattails, ROKOKO, Saturation, Phantom Seed, and numerous anthologies. He can be found on the web at lifeinoleg.com.