Friday, September 16, 2011

The House Of Schlock

I had a next door neighbor once, Mrs. Fortune was her name. She was a collector. She collected thimbles and hankies and thread spools after the thread was used up. She saved pistachio shells and gum wrappers, pennies found on the street, sugar packets from luncheonettes, ticket stubs, glass icicles from chandeliers that were never hers. The drawer under the sink, where normal people keep their forks and such, she filled with old keys, heavy with rust, that didn’t fit any of the locks in her apartment.

Her hall closet was stuffed with baby shoes, piled top to bottom on little wooden shelves she asked Bruno, the super, to put up for her. On the closet floor were bowling balls, maybe 30 of them, each in their own little vinyl or leather bag.

She called her things “forgotten treasures.” I thought of apartment 6H, when I thought of it at all, as “The House of Schlock.”

Mrs. Fortune would invite me in from time to time, to view a new discovery — a plastic hand mysteriously disengaged from a department store mannequin; a monkey doll made out of old socks. She was friendly enough, but I kept my distance. I didn’t want to get sucked in by a mind that was capable of crocheting a little pink sleeping blanket for a soup spoon.

There was that Saturday in February when the boiler broke down, taking six hours to crank back up, and the whole building went Arctic. I called my mother, who of course wanted me to take a taxi up to her apartment, but I said I was okay, I had gloves, I had a down vest, I had 100% wool socks. “I’ll pretend I’m camping,” I told her. “You’re crazy,” my mother said. “Check on Mrs. Fortune,” she added, giving me a good stiff dose of guilt before hanging up.

Mrs. Fortune didn’t have gloves or a vest or woolen socks. She came to her door in a faded chiffon housecoat, her long pale feet crammed into a pair of gold lamé slippers. She looked distraught. “My babies are freezing,” she cried, pulling me by the wrist into her living room, passed the coat rack laden with leftover Christmas ornaments and the green sateen love seat where newspaper clippings were pinned on like so many lopsided doilies. 

She pushed me ahead of her toward the flat metal board that rested above the now-frigid radiator, where she kept avocado pits in jelly jars filled with water. Cocktail toothpicks with red, yellow and blue plastic fringes were plunged into the sides of each pit to keep them from drowning. I could just make out spindly bits of greenery sprouting from some, but others were entirely bare. 
“Lucille is nearly gone,” she said, reaching a trembling finger toward one of the pits, “and how much longer the twins have is anybody’s guess.” She caressed the smooth sides of two others, whispering “Prudence,” and “Philomena.” I tried backing away but she had me by the elbow now. “Felix Divine is in need of mouth-to-mouth, don’t you think?” “No,” I said, “he looks good to me,” but Mrs. Fortune was not convinced. “Gertie is in shock,” she insisted, “Sookie-Mae will need a rest cure after this. Assuming she comes out of it alive.”
I allowed myself to be talked into a rescue operation. We spent the next hour holding the jelly jars up to our mouths and blowing hot air on the pits.  “Don’t blow with your lips closed,” Mrs. Fortune scolded me, “you’re not cooling soup. Go like this — ” and she demonstrated, her mouth open, pushing out moist bursts of breath. “Hunh, hunh, hunh,” she went, with each exhalation. I did what she said. What was I going to do, walk out on her? She was my neighbor. You owe something to a neighbor. That’s the way I was brought up.
Finally, Mrs. Fortune agreed we had done all that we could. With her eyes raised to the grape soda stain on the ceiling she said she was leaving it in God’s hands now. Just before I made my escape, she removed a dirty red shoelace from around her neck and presented it to me with a shaky bow. “This was a Valentine’s  Day gift from Mr. Francis J. Romero,” she confided, “but he’d want you to have it, you’re such a good girl.” 

I knew, from earlier visits, that Mr. Francis J. Romero was the spider who lived in her bathroom.