23 February 2010

The new owner stands in the hall, his manila envelope under his arm, owning the hall

It's time for a Barthelme story.

The New Owner

When he came to look at the building, with a real-estate man hissing and oozing beside him, we lowered the blinds, muted or extinguished lights, threw newspapers and dirty clothes on the floor in piles, burned rubber bands in ashtrays, and played Buxtehude on the hi-fi-shaking organ chords whose vibrations made the plaster falling from the ceiling fall faster. The new owner stood in profile, refusing to shake hands or even speak to us, a tall thin young man suited in hopsacking with a large manila envelope under one arm. We pointed to the plaster, to the crevasses in the walls, sagging ceilings, leaks. Nevertheless, he closed.

Soon he was slipping little rent bills into the mailboxes, slip slip slip slip. In sixteen years we’d never had rent bills but now we have rent bills. He’s raised the rent, and lowered the heat. The owner creeps into the house by night and takes the heat away with him. He wants us out, out. If we were gone, the building would be decontrolled. The rents would climb into the air like steam.

Bicycles out of the halls, says the new owner. Shopping carts out of the halls. My halls.

The new owner stands in profile in the street in front of our building. He looks up the street, then down the street-this wondrous street where our friends and neighbors have lived for decades in Christian, Jewish, and, in some instances, Islamic peace. The new owner is writing the Apartments Unfurn. Ads of the future, in his head.

The new owner fires the old super, simply because the old super is a slaphappy, widowed, shot-up, black, Korean War-sixty-five-percent-disability drunk. There is a shouting confrontation in the basement. The new owner threatens the old super with the police. The old super is locked out. A new super is hired who does not put out the garbage, does not mop the halls, does not, apparently, exist. Roaches prettyfoot into the building because the new owner has stopped the exterminating service. The new owner wants us out.

We whisper to the new owner, through the walls. Go away! Own something else! Don’t own this building! Try the Sun Belt! Try Alaska, Hawaii! Sail away, new owner, sail away!

The new owner arrives, takes out his keys, opens the locked basement. The new owner is standing in the basement, owning the basement, with is single dangling light bulb and the slightly busted souvenirs of all our children’s significant progress. He is taking away the heat, carrying it out with him under his coat, a few pounds at a time, and bringing in with him, a few hundred at a time, his hired roaches.

The new owner stands in the hall, his manila envelope under his arm, owning the hall.

The new owner wants our apartment, and the one below, and the two above, and the one above them. He’s a bachelor, tall thin young man in cheviot, no wife, no children, only buildings. He’s covered the thermostat with a locked clear-plastic case. His manila envelope contains estimates and floor plans and draft Apartment Unfurn. Ads and documents from the Office of Rent and Housing Preservation which speak of Maximum Base Rents and Maximum Collectible Rents and under what circumstances a Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Order may be voided.

Black handprints all over the green of the halls where the new owner has been feeling the building.

The new owner has informed the young cohabiting couple on the floor above us (rear) that they are illegally living in sin and that for this reason he will give them only a month-to-month lease, so that at the end of each and every month they must tremble.

The new owner has informed the old people in the apartment above us (front) that he is prepared to prove that they do not actually live in their apartment in that they are old and so do not, in any real sense, live, and that they are thus subject to a Maximum Real Life Estimate Revision, which, if allowed by the City, will award him their space. Levon and Priscilla tremble.
The new owner stands on the roof, where the tomato plants are, owning the roof. May a good wind blow him to hell.

-Donald Barthelme

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