Another short story:
“The Audacity of Mold”
Ted’s sanctuary was under siege every time it rained. He yawned and considered calling the landlord as he looked at the darkening panel above his bed. The roof damage was extensive, and what had started as a small leak, had blossomed into a galaxy of pinhole drips. Earlier in the afternoon he had moved a large Tupperware tub from the top of his desk to the middle of the bed to catch the dripping water. The contents of that tub were grimy and contained runny bits of what looked like lumpy potatoes sprinkled with metal filings.
The Tupperware tub was not alone in its function. There were many other plastic bins and bowls situated throughout the room. There was even a gloomy fish tank with a spider web crack set upon the wicker clothes hamper in the corner. It had no fish within, just honey colored water and a ceramic diver fighting for his life to get out.
Ted sighed as he felt a mixture of anxiety and regret, not knowing where one began and the other ended. It never seemed to end. He glanced at the picture of his mother on the bureau as if the answer resided within the silver frame. There was nothing there but silence and pain.
Before he left the room he surveyed the ceiling again, and made note of the panel two spots over from where he stood. This panel was the first to gain the attention of the water. For the last six months, when it rained, the drips would appear, and work their chaos. Great moist and shadowed stains grew dry in the days following a heavy rain. Some panels held phantom faces, while other panels were pushed to the brink of solubility and hung from above like a series of upside down molehills. The ceiling was replete with craters and constellations that could rival a glance at the moon against a clear night’s sky.
He did not contact the landlord because he didn’t want to bother him, or be caught. Ted thought, as he did with many things, that if he ignored the problem it would go away. The leaks never went away. They only grew more abundant. The gravity of his complacency drew the water to his room. What Ted couldn’t see from where he was standing, was the impending danger of the waterlogged and sagging slant that developed above. It ran from the northern side of the roof to just above the room where he did most of his living.
What Ted was privy to but chose to ignore, occurred between the suspended ceiling and the ceiling that abutted the roof. He made the discovery one day, when he pushed one of the uncorrupted panels upward and searched for the source of the tangy odor that permeated his room. Ted realized that for as long as it rained and dried and dried and rained, great civilizations of mold were burgeoning above. There was green mold, black mold, and there was even mold that gifted the viewer with a full rainbow of color when peeked at with a flashlight.
He didn’t know what to do at first, so he just sprayed some Lysol up there hoping to mask the smell. It did nothing to abate the advance of the mold. So he gave up and resigned himself to living with it that way. The mold grew larger with each passing denial and quicksand step into apathy. It was because of his inaction that life sprung forth. Ted was a god.
Standing there, he felt a tug of responsibility, and again thought that he should finally call the landlord and fess up. This only lasted for a slight moment. It didn’t overpower his shame and ambivalence. He felt that he was in a tremendous rut, and wondered why he had real trouble making decisions.
It didn’t help that he had other distractions clouding his mind. Work had been a mess lately. The nightshift supervisor found all the tubs of unsorted mail that Ted stashed underneath the third floor stairwell at the annex. Unfortunately, he forgot to remove the scan tickets from the tubs when he hid them there.
He hated that he was so careless. He got off with a written warning this time. Ted explained to the supervisor that one of his coworkers had done it, and was setting him up for a fall. His supervisor knew this was untrue, but needed to create the paper trail to get Ted out of there. Ted suspected that the post office management held plans to get rid of him, but he resigned himself that nothing was going to get done about it this week.
Work sucked and now this mess. He decided that he could deal with the ceiling later. He made a mental note to pick up some new ceiling panels at Home Depot on the way home from work in the morning. Perhaps, that would do until he figured out how to handle it all.
He turned and left the bedroom behind him, and walked down the hallway. As he went, he tripped over the curled up lip of the worn area rug and cursed under his breath.
He suddenly felt the urge to go the bathroom. When he got there, he opened the door and yanked the string in the middle of the room. The light shot on with a ting. The bakery string that he jerry-rigged to the fixture last week swung back and forth and then temporarily clung to his face as he walked under the light. He went over to the toilet and flipped the lid open. He pulled his zipper down and started into it. At first, the stream shot a little to the left and missed the bowl. He thought this odd, because he was sure he was aiming directly into the toilet.
When he gained control of the stream he creased the toilet paper floating on the surface of the water with mustard pulses of urine. Ironically, with as much water that was coming into the house, no water was going into him. Never one for hydration, Ted believed that soft drinks were the best way to quench thirst. When he was done, he zipped up and pulled the flusher down. The corn colored paper twirled around and seemed happy to escape as it squirreled down the drain.
As he came back across the bathroom to exit, he caught sight of himself in the mirror. He took stock of the face. He didn’t recognize the man in front of him. There was a fat baron staring back at him, who looked like he had looted the Hostess Factory carrying the last remaining Twinkies in his gullet.
Ted didn’t recognize this man. Somehow, between high school and now, this stranger came to be. There was an imposter standing there. He reached out toward the glass. He could see that the stranger was reaching back. Although, they eventually touched, there was no connection between them. Their fingertips only registered the smooth coldness of the mirror’s surface. It betrayed them both.
He saw chins, and jowls, and cheeks bedraggled by scraggily whiskers. Slumped and weakened shoulders surrendered to the cotton of the taut t-shirt that adorned him. This man was no Atlas. He also noticed wisps of hair growing out in a wild fashion from the collar of his shirt. Of all of the physical characteristics that Ted possessed, his hairy back was his least favorite.
Staring at the reflection, he noted that his cheeks held a pinkish hue that moved toward rose red as he shifted back and forth underneath the light. This color spoke to the tension of the blood that circulated throughout him. He was looking at an early death. Looking at it squarely in the face. He would know this if he went to the doctor. Of course, that hadn’t happened in years.
He couldn’t remember the last time he was seen by a physician. In fact, the last time he even went to a hospital was to say goodbye to his ailing mother. Cancer got a hold of her in 2005, and it didn’t let go until it was done with her. Breast cancer it was. It started there and then spread into the lymph nodes. The chemo and radiation didn’t help. Three years of false hopes, punctuated by scars, bedpans and morphine. She was set for hospice care, but she never made it home. The doctor told Ted that she passed comfortably. They always said that.
The toilet was still running, it seemed to run incessantly after each flush, so he jiggled the flusher a little. He reasoned that if he just pulled the door closed, then he wouldn’t have to hear it anymore.
Ted exited the bathroom and stepped back into the hallway. The tapping of the rain brought his attention to the gray skylight above. He started to feel slightly upbeat and reassured by the rhythm. He grabbed the newel post on the top of the landing with his right hand, and twisted out over the top stair. He almost lost his balance, but at the last second, put his arm on the wall to regain his balance. Then he planted his feet squarely on the treads, and negotiated the first few stairs without an instance of doubt. The only thought he held came as he passed the broken bannister to the right.
That happened last Fourth of July when he came home drunk from the fireworks. He got to the top of the staircase that night and somehow missed the last step. Instead of falling forward, he tried to steady himself and lost his balance falling backward and to the left. He discovered a map of Europe on his side when he lifted his shirt a couple of days later to inspect the injury. There were blues, yellows and reds all up and down his torso. The injury eventually healed. The stairs didn’t.
Ted continued his trip downward after the unpleasant recollection and reached the bottom. He noticed a bundle of mail peeking through the mail slot at the bottom of the front door. The elastic that contained the mail was marred by grey streaks, and seemed to be holding the bundle for all it was worth. The weekly circulars were ripped in several places and exhibited the struggle that happened between the postman and the rusty brass mouth of the mail slot. As he bent to scoop up the bundle, he tugged at it to free it from the slot. This caused the elastic to relent, and the bundle to explode all over the floor. He collected the dispersed mail into a pile, leaving the failed elastic aside.
He noticed a red envelope face down in the middle of the newly formed pile. He tried to pick it up, but could gain no lift with his greasy fingertips. He resorted to using a postcard mailer to slide underneath it and break its seal with the floor.
As he turned it over, he examined it. He saw his name, Mr. Theodore Ensary, written in bold letters. This was followed by his address. Then his eyes shot to the upper left corner of the envelope. There, also in bold letters, it read Mr. Rowan Harrison, 12311 Tampa Way Road, Tampa FL 33602. It was another letter from the landlord.
The bottom of his stomach fell out, and he started to get nervous. He knew that it wouldn’t be much longer until he was discovered. He started to get angry and felt the compelling need to recall his list of offenders and catalog the many indignities he suffered do to their aims.
Ted knew at all times who had wronged him, or who was trying to wrong him. There was Fr. Jacoby and Brezlin from St. Frederick’s Church. The dog religiously soiled Ted’s front yard. The Pastor, always looking to pick up new sinners at the mass, refused to pick up Brezlin’s venial turds and dispose of them properly.
Then there was his boss at work, Clive Hunt. Ted liked to think of him as the big dumb dullard, with a hidden agenda that entailed screwing Ted out of his job. Ted loathed him most of the time, but now held a keener hatred for him because of the written warning he recently received.
Lastly, Gus, the deli clerk at Tedeschi’s, seemed to get under Ted’s skin regularly. Although Ted couldn’t prove it, he was almost certain that the clerk cheated him by three or four slices every time he bought a pound of baloney. He once accused Gus of placing his thumb on the meat scale to up the price, when weighing the cut meat.
These people haunted Ted’s thoughts, and often brought him to the boiling point of anger when he conjured up their perceived injustices. He always hoped for one more injustice to push him over the line, so he could set all accounts straight. In truth, it didn’t matter much, because the distance that came up between offenses was enough to weaken Ted’s already timid resolve.
Ted’s landlord just jumped to the top of the list. He didn’t even have to open the envelope to know what was inside. He threw it over onto the radiator with the other four envelopes of like size and color. He wondered to himself why bad news always seemed to come wrapped in the Stop & Shop circular.
He didn’t bother with the rest of the mail scattered on the floor. He turned from the front door and traveled to the kitchen at the back of the house. As he crossed the threshold he glanced at the sink. The dishes were still there. He then went to the opposite side of the kitchen and picked up the phone receiver. He struggled with the avocado cord. It was tangled beyond help. So he stood as close to the phone as the lack of slack provided. He dialed the number for Jenny’s Pizza and ordered a large pie with extra cheese, pepperoni, and onion. He also had a hankering for mozzarella cheese sticks, and asked for an order of those as well.
“How long?” Ted asked.
“Should be over in 25 minutes.”
He hung up the phone and went over to the sink. He reached in and pulled out a pile of plates that were sitting on top. Upon examination, each one was worse then the next. Petrified ketchup and crumbs on one. Duck sauce and rice stuck to the other. It wasn’t until he got to the third plate down, that he found one that he could use when the pizza got there. He held the plate up to his mouth and blew the sugar and cinnamon off. He was able to wipe away what was left behind with a damp paper towel.
Satisfied that he was ready for the food to arrive, Ted went back to the front of the house and slumped into the living room. He fell into his recliner, and reached for the television remote. He turned on the television and muted the volume. He pulled up the menu to see what was on. Unhappy with the slow roll of the menu guide, he decided to just traverse the channels from the first high-definition channel to the last. He knew that he was going to have to get some sleep before going into work later. It was always a grind at work when the weather was poor.
He selected an episode of some reality show he had enjoyed before. Ted felt much better about himself as he watched. The people on the show exhibited such irrational behavior. He wondered how they could be such idiots.
About ten minutes later the phone rang. Ted decided against answering it. He had nothing to say to anyone at this point. It was likely a bill collector anyhow. It continued to ring well past eight rings, as there was no longer an answering machine to catch the call. He smashed the machine to pieces one night when he realized that he mistakenly recorded over the only audio he had of his mother’s voice.
In the two years after his mother’s death, he would just listen to the message over and over. There were even a few times when the phone rang and when the message began to play, that he would forget that she was dead. It seemed for a beat that she was still alive. Then the realization would kick in, and he would despair over the truth. He couldn’t understand why he never thought to videotape her, or record her voice in an interview. He had nothing left of her. Her pension was gone, the insurance money was gone, even her clothes went out to the Salvation Army the spring following her death. The voice was forever hushed. He found it hard to remember what she sounded like.
He knew he could contact her brothers, but they despised him. The siblings had all sounded alike. They all seemed to share the same nasal drone, vocal intonations, and even certain pithy word phrases. But they were ashamed of him, and were not shy about reminding Ted of how much of a disappointment he turned out to be to the family. He regarded his uncles differently years ago. He realized that he didn’t have the energy to deal with it, so he just thought it proper to add them to his list of offenders.
He had enough television, and started to wonder when the pizza was going to arrive. It had been at least thirty minutes or more since he had called in the order. Just as he pressed the power button to turn off the television, there came a loud rapping on the door.
He was relieved that his food had finally arrived. He rolled out of his chair and fished his wallet out of the jacket hanging on the broken upright vacuum. Then he sharply heard, “Hey, Teddy! Hello! Is anyone home? Hello?”
Ted froze for a moment and he panicked. He tried to think of who it could be. He looked at the cable box, and its clock read 4:43pm. Only seven hours and seventeen minutes until he had to be back at work.
The knocking came again.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
“Hello, Teddy! Are you home?”
Ted walked toward the front door. He tried to think of a way that he could look to see who was knocking without being seen. Suddenly, he heard a key being inserted into the lock, and then the click and whirl of the tumblers.
Ted immediately knew it was the landlord, Pickles Harrison. He was the only other person that had a key to the house.
The door opened about two inches, but the chain didn’t allow it to go any farther. Ted charged the door.
“ Just a minute! Just a goddamned minute Pickles!”
“Teddy, open the door, I need to get into the house.”
Ted pushed the door back into the frame and slid the chain out of the catch. Then he opened the door, and saw his landlord standing there on the welcome mat. Pickles Harrison looked angry, miserable, and was getting wetter by the second. He held a soaked newspaper over his head to no effect. He still looked the same to Ted, although he hadn’t seen him in five years. The only difference now, was that Pickles was sporting a bushy and untrimmed moustache. It seemed to be working to meet the tumbleweed tangle of eyebrows that were heading south over Pickles’ cheekbones.
“What’s up Pickles?”
“I need to come in, Teddy. I need to talk to you about this property.”
Rowan Harrison hated to be called Pickles. It was a nickname that stuck with him since grammar school. One time he brought a jar of pickles to school with his lunch, and dropped it on the coatroom floor. It smashed into a million pieces, and he had to clean up the mess using paper towels from the clunky dispenser in the nurse’s office. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t get the smell off of his hands after he was finished cleaning up the mess. For the rest of the day the kids chanted “Pickles! Pickles! Pickles!”
That one event haunted Rowan, and even now, forty years later, he still couldn’t get free from the association. The name followed him through two moves and took up residence with him in Tampa, Florida.
“I need to inspect the house. A month ago I got a tip from a contractor friend working next door. He noticed that the roof was in need of immediate repairs. I’ve been trying to reach you by phone and through the mail. What the hell is going on here?” said Pickles. “I had to come up all the way from Florida to deal with this.”
“Everything’s fine. You caught me at a bad time. I’ve been busy. I haven’t been around. I’ve been out of town.”
“Goddammit, Ted! My family has taken care of you all of these years because your mother was such a nice woman, and we allowed you to stay on after she passed, but I can’t afford to have you here anymore. Look what you’re doing to the place. It’s a filthy mess. There’s dust everywhere, and look at the clothes all over the place. I need to come in and check out upstairs.”
“NO! You don’t have my permission to come in here. I still pay rent and you can’t come in here unannounced. I know my rights.”
“Teddy I’ve tried to announce my coming, I sent five letters and made several attempts to phone you. Look, there’s the letters over there on the radiator”
“But nothing, you’re going to have to leave here. You can’t stay here anymore.”
“What about my deposit, my mother’s deposit?”
“Deposit? Deposit! Are you kidding me Teddy? Look at this place!”
Just as the conversation was getting more and more intense, the food arrived. The delivery driver approached the house to see two men in a heated exchange. He took the pizza out of thermal delivery sleeve and dug deeper into the bag for the mozzarella sticks. He then picked the stapled receipt off of the bag and made an attempt to hand the items through the door to Ted. The driver recognized him from making prior deliveries.
Pickles looked over his shoulder and glared at the delivery driver.
“Get the hell outta here! Can’t you see we’re in the middle of something?”
Ted reached out to accept the pizza from the delivery driver, but Pickles tried to intercept it. Suddenly, Ted, Pickles and the delivery driver all had a hold of the box. There was a brief and awkward tug of war, but Pickles wrestled the box from the grasp of the other two. He didn’t count on it being so hot, and couldn’t handle the box as it started to tip sideways. Just then the pizza slid out onto Pickles’ hands and scalded him. There were sinews of extra cheese and patches of burnt crisp pepperoni hanging from knuckle to knuckle on Pickles’ hands. Both Ted and the delivery driver looked on in horror. Ted’s horror came from the realization that his pizza was ruined.
The pizza box, and whatever remained that hadn’t already spilled out onto Pickles’ hands, slid onto the floor and mixed with the assorted mail that was already there. The discarded broken elastic from earlier was now covered in pizza sauce.
Ted scampered for the nearest thing he could find. He found a pair of sweat pants rolled into a ball in the living room, and tried to use these to wipe the cheese off of Pickles’ hands. Pickles started to flail like crazy and shouted obscenities at Ted and the delivery driver.
“Your still an asshole after all these years. You’re a child. That’s it. I’m evicting you. I’ll be back here tomorrow with an attorney and the goddamned constable.”
All of a sudden, from somewhere above them, there came a terrific noise and the house seemed to rock a little bit. It sounded as if a motorboat ran aground on a beach. The noise sounded like a wet, heavy, and scratchy catastrophe.
“What was that?” said Pickles, with wide eyes.
“What was what?” said Ted.
The delivery driver just stood there mouth gaping. He pointed to the top of the stairs and said, “It came from upstairs.”
Pickles slapped his hands against Ted’s chest and pushed him aside. He took the stairs two at a time, and swung around the post when he got to the top. He rushed down the hall and threw open he door.
“What! Are you fucking kidding me? Jesus Goddamned Jumping Jehoshaphat! TED…. TEDDY…Get up here, now! Jesus H Christ! I can’t believe this. You asshole, you total asshole.”
Ted stood there with fresh hand stains on his t-shirt where Pickles had slapped him on the chest. He looked at the driver and told him not to worry, that it wasn’t his fault. He said that Pickles was an idiot, and that he brought it on himself. Ted added through a series of nervous giggles that maybe they should call him Pepperonis instead of Pickles from now on because of the pizza falling through his hands.
Ted paid the delivery driver and grabbed the bag of mozzarella sticks. He turned around and closed the door, and then headed upstairs slowly. When he got to the top of the stairs he poked his head into the bathroom. The toilet was still running.
He then proceeded down the hallway looking up at the skylight, noting the tremendous cadence of the rain as it now came down like a power drum machine on loop.
When he got to the end of the hallway he stood at the threshold of the door and saw Pickles struggling to angle the various tubs underneath the large gaping hole that was once a ceiling.
“That’s it! You’re done. You’re gone. I am going to sue you for this. You son of a bitch, look what you’ve done.”
Pickles stood there wetter than when he arrived on the welcome mat, as he tried to contain the deluge. He had no success. He lunged at Ted and pushed him against the wall.
“You son of a bitch. I’m going to call the cops. I have to go get help for this. When I get back, you better be gone from here. This is not the last you’ll hear from me.”
Pickles kicked a tub out of the way as he exited the room, and hurried down the stairs, out the door.
Ted stood just inside the room and took in all the damage. He didn’t know what to do. He pulled up the purple stool that was just inside the door. He took a mozzarella stick from the bag and started to eat. It was hotter than he expected, and he burnt his lips and tongue a little. He took the mozzarella stick and stretched it out between his mouth and fingertips. Then he threw his head back dangling the remaining piece over his mouth and slowly lowering it in. He licked his teeth and let out a thunderous belch.
He leaned back on the stool and put his feet up on the bed. He tried to push the Tupperware tub, and the sections of the ceiling that had fallen down. The ceiling crumbled underneath the force of his feet.
He thought about how ridiculous it all was. He knew he was in trouble. He had nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. He let a sneered laugh escape his lips that was more from disgust than in shame. He had finally done it. He looked up at what remained of the ceiling above, and then over at the picture of his mother on the bureau. Somehow, by some miracle, the picture of his mother escaped the carnage. Tears filled his eyes, and he directed a desperate query to the woman in the silver frame.
“Can you imagine the audacity of that prick?”
There was no answer.
There was nothing there but silence and pain.