Birdbath

by John Murray

Birdbath

I’ll always regret what I did. It’s a terrible thing to live with, even if it was Fanny Kratz.

That didn’t sound right; I’ll explain.

Right after it happened, I felt like I’d achieved such a triumph by defeating my nemesis that I was giddy. It was like I outswam a shark, scrambled up a seawall, and stood tall, on dry land at last, looking down on the predatory hell I’d escaped. There was a lightness I hadn’t felt in years, a gurgling sort of exhilaration percolating in my throat that felt like it might just explode into one effusive cry of freedom.

It’s not like I was happy. That would make me some kind of psychopath. Which I’m not. It’s just that if you outswim a shark, you’re grateful to survive.

Comparing her to a shark might sound heartless, but it fits; I wasn’t like that before I knew her. It took years, but she did it. Just the same, it was wrong that I was giddy when there she was, splayed out on the kitchen floor.

Her pudgy face still had that sour expression. Her lips were pursed, and her nostrils were flared as if she was still trying to sniff out the latest injustice she imagined I’d committed. Her eyes were open, and one of them was crossed, but now it was staying crossed. When she was alive, her eyes took turns crossing—everyone knows someone like that. You think the normal one is looking at you while the other one wanders off to the side, but then they switch, and you feel like you’ve been fooled. That wandering eye business made face-to-face contact with Fanny kind of stressful—and kind of irritating at the same time.

I didn’t call the police. They would’ve done some sort of investigation, and I might not have been able to assume the lease on that place. Getting my name on the lease was all I ever wanted from Fanny. She held that apartment over my head like a biscuit for a dog.

* * *

I answered her ad in the Village Voice (it was 1982; people still read newspapers).

UWS: M or F roommate needed to share huge 1br luxury apartment with music professional. No smoking/drugs/promiscuity. $400. f/l/s/

Sounded good to me—a struggling actor, auditioning and taking classes during the day, waiting tables at night. I assumed such a bargain would already be taken, but Fanny told me on the telephone that she was still interviewing potential roommates.

That afternoon, I took the subway uptown and even got out at an earlier stop so that I could enjoy walking the last few blocks to the building. The Upper West Side was a dream to a young actor. I’d been sharing a one-bedroom in the East Village with two other waiter/actors—back when you had to step past used syringes and passed-out junkies on your front stoop every morning. The Upper West Side was so sophisticated—Julliard, Lincoln Center, Central Park West—the sort of places you think about when you’re twenty-three and moving to New York seems like a great idea.

The Ansonia takes up a whole block of the Upper West Side—looks like a giant wedding cake—and it was famous for being occupied with artists and musicians and actors. I thought it was a tribute to the grandness of old New York. Its rococo details and huge marble lobby made me feel privileged just to have a reason to be there. After checking in with the front desk, I took an elevator to the sixteenth floor and stepped into that wide hallway. My heart pounded at the idea of living in such opulence.

As I walked down the hallway, I could hear occupants of different apartments running their vocal scales, or repeating lines from audition sides (each run-through with varying tones, inflections, or emotions). Others chatted on the telephone with an ambitious sort of optimism that I never heard from my roommates in the East Village. When I rang Fanny’s doorbell, she opened the door with a telephone tucked between her ear and shoulder and a box of rye crisps in her hand. She waved me in and gave me the just-a-minute signal, so I stood in the dark hallway of the apartment and waited for her to finish her call. I was about to peek into the living room when she appeared in the doorway.

“Hold on, Iris,” she said, before pressing the receiver into her chest and looking in my direction. “Please don’t look at anything until I’m off the phone.” Then she wagged her finger to emphasize her point.

I was embarrassed, but New Yorkers are funny about their space, and I convinced myself that she really wasn’t being rude. She finished her phone call, and we exchanged hellos. I thought I could like her—she was only about thirty-five (I thought of her as “older”), she was very…direct, but she seemed easy with a smile, made a couple of witty comments—didn’t seem too crazy by Village-Voice-apartments-to-share standards. She said that she wouldn’t add my name to the lease until she was sure everything worked out.

The suggestion that my name might be on the lease to that apartment in that section of Manhattan was more than I’d even hoped. I assured her I could pay the rent with no problem, and she told me that her father had left her a little “fund” that, if she were frugal, she could survive on while she pursued her singing career. I was optimistic that we’d make good roommates, but for that apartment, I would’ve thought that Charles Manson and I could make good roommates. Still, I never thought that that day would be the last time she’d ever smile at me.

“The living room would be your bedroom,” she said, “but it’s still the living room, so I can use it.”

The living room had twelve-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, and two sets of bay windows facing uptown. For four hundred dollars a month, I’d been seeing nothing but rooms that were the size of butter dishes, with windows facing black brick walls. Share that room? No problem. I didn’t even mind all of the small, framed posters from Fanny’s supper club engagements with Hirschfeld-esque caricatures of her playfully interacting with her stage name, FANNY-K! I surmised she was one of those staples of the big city, a performer who had enough of a following to secure periodic bookings but who had no real celebrity.

“Also,” she went on, “I tell everyone I interview that I only bathe at the kitchen sink, because the water is filtered in the kitchen but not in the bathroom. I worry about chlorofluorocarbons.” I’d never heard of chlorofluorocarbons, but they sounded like something to avoid, so I nodded as if I wholeheartedly agreed with the agenda.

Since there was no kitchen door, the idea that Fanny might be nude or partially nude in or at the kitchen sink on a regular basis forced me to really study her. She was a vision of attempts at eighties glamor. Her auburn hair was teased high and wide and had so much spray in it that when she moved her head in any direction, the solid mass of hair moved with it. She wore so much eyeliner that it looked like she might be performing as Cleopatra in some equity-waiver production. She managed to give herself high cheekbones where she lacked any skeletal definition, and her lips were perfect mounds of fuchsia glossiness.

What I didn’t consider was how much preparation time it took to produce that masterpiece every morning.

* * *

For someone who bathed in a sink, Fanny was, well, a big girl—or as she described herself, “generously curved.” She liked to boast about her “hourglass figure,” and she was right because her waist was unquestionably smaller than what was above and below it. Most people might look at her and think, Mama-Cass-in-a-corset, but she looked in the mirror and thought, Jane Russell.

She had a fondness for miniskirts, which she bought in the Fast-N-Funky section of the Ample Duds store on lower Broadway. The apartment always smelled faintly like baby powder because Fanny constantly applied it to her thighs to alleviate the chafing when she wore her miniskirts. Muggy New York summers were particularly difficult for Fanny, who scuffed around the apartment in terry cloth slippers and a tattered pink bathrobe that came mid-thigh, repeatedly proclaiming, “It’s too hot!” and “Oy, I’m schvitzing!” as if someone within earshot had better come correct the situation if they knew what was good for them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

* * *

Those first five minutes with Fanny were a harbinger of our entire association.

I moved in, but not fully. On moving day, Fanny assessed my furniture in the hallway and decided that the only pieces that were necessary for me were the futon and the dresser. Everything else would have to go. It was too late to argue, and I had no other options, so I chucked the rest.

I should’ve guessed when Fanny told me not to peek into the living room that this was an extremely territorial woman. What she didn’t tell me then was that I, and any guests I might have, would be confined to my futon, since she wasn’t comfortable with “unfamiliar energy” occupying her furniture. I always complied, and even when Fanny wasn’t there, my guests and I respectfully squeezed onto my futon, which was stuffed into a corner of the living room.

But Fanny had double standards.

* * *

It wasn’t the mascara on my toothbrush, the cigarette burns on my futon, or my missing sweat socks that showed up as rags under the bathroom sink that got to me. I’d asked her about those violations, and she came back not just furious, but disgusted, as if the idea of even touching something of mine repulsed her. It wasn’t even that half the time I used the bathroom, she banged on the door (which had a broken lock), pushed it open just wide enough to slip her fist through, pointed a painted nail in my direction, said, “You!” and then gestured with her thumb, “OUT!” No, it was the food that finally did it. You can hide a toothbrush, you can ignore a cigarette burn, you can wear sneakers with no socks, you can put a chair against a door…but you have to eat—every day. Food costs money, and I wasn’t getting any big breaks. I was living on tips; money was tight.

Anyone who didn’t live with Fanny would have to pity her for the miserably sluggish metabolism nature had cursed her with, but I knew better. True, Fanny only purchased food that made the corner grocer think she was the most disciplined of dieters, but those items represented only a tiny fraction of her caloric intake. My rent wasn’t exorbitant, but my food bills were. Whereas before, a package of Oreos lasted me about two weeks, now it lasted me about two days. It seemed as if my juice and milk evaporated behind the closed refrigerator door, my boxes of cereal and cans of tuna escaped through hidden panels in the cabinets, and a family of invisible monkeys came in the night to eat my bananas. I very gently asked Fanny the obvious questions, but she denied eating any of my food and resented the suggestion that she was. I wanted to get even, but after two days of rye crisps with Weight Watchers raspberry jelly, I decided on an alternative strategy.

I would teach her a mean but necessary lesson. I began to spray food with carpet cleaner. I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t want to kill her, just make her a little sick for a few days so that she’d think twice about eating my food. For three weeks, I set out the bait every night in the kitchen locations she trolled to satisfy her cravings. Perfectly ripe strawberries, sliced turkey breast, potato chips, chocolate-covered macaroons, Pecan Sandies, and, her favorite, Oatmeal Little Debbies with cream filling, which I had to reseal in their individual packets. Fanny liked a savory snack, but her sweet tooth dominated her kitchen raids. Everything got a light spraying before being put away. I knew it was a chunk of money to spend on food that would be ruined, but I decided it was an investment that would pay off.

Each morning, I woke up and poured myself a glass of juice as usual, and then I would nonchalantly check the bait. Gone. Always gone, but Fanny never got sick. I figured it might be a slower, more cumulative process than I’d anticipated, so I continued until one afternoon, in an absent-minded state of hunger, I ate one of my tainted brownies before rushing to work. At the peak of the dinner rush, I became violently ill and didn’t fully recover for three days. When I was well again, I silently conceded defeat and stopped eating at home.

* * *

As she promised herself, Fanny remained free of chlorofluorocarbon exposure while in the apartment. She created her own birdbath with an aluminum stepladder that led up to the white ceramic kitchen sink, where she would perch naked for at least an hour and a half every morning. It wasn’t the pubic hairs in the drain that annoyed me as much as the scented toiletries. Aside from baby powder, there was vanilla body lotion, peaches-and-cream hand lotion, cucumber face lotion, and coconut hair spray. These made up the stench coming from the kitchen as Fanny performed her beauty regimen while drinking Tab and smoking Virginia Slims, a routine I never understood, considering her obsession with toxins and her insistence on a non-smoking roommate. This routine was also Fanny’s fatal flaw.

* * *

The four years of life with Fanny spiraled downward. She often terrorized me in the night, waking me from a sound sleep with furious accusations of stealing things she’d misplaced or playing her piano when she wasn’t home. She humiliated me in front of friends and family with quips like, “I hope your cousins know this isn’t really your apartment, so I might decide they need to leave at some point.” And the looming threat of eviction was constant.

I should’ve just moved out, but I’d fallen in love with the specialness of that place; it was part of my identity, part of how I saw the world and how the world saw me. But something in me changed. My youthful optimism dissipated, and, like Fanny, I developed a meanness, an intolerance for other people and a preoccupation with myself and my needs.

Granted, it was four years of restaurant work, too: eight hours a day of dealing with crazy managers and every sort of customer, pumping out so many pleases, thank-yous, so sorries, right aways, and is everything okays? that my self-esteem was in the sewer. My hair started thinning and my agent was losing enthusiasm, especially after I was cut out of three national commercials and two television pilots. Years of my life and thousands of dollars spent getting a degree in acting, taking classes, going to auditions, making connections, all so that I could click my heels and bow to customers all night before going home to live like a cockroach in my own apartment. I hadn’t felt this low since my junior year of college, when I was under a little too much stress and had to move home to live in my old bedroom (until they got my meds regulated) and work with a therapist to get some “tools” that could help me start “advocating” for myself.

* * *

I waited about a year before my next attempt to get back at Fanny, which convinced me that she was invincible, bordering on superhuman.

Looking for comfort one night, I pulled out my anthology of Arthur Miller plays, which I now understood on a deeper level than I did as a student. Death of a Salesman and The Crucible were my favorites, stories of men who wanted recognition, who demanded legitimacy, who strove to preserve their reputations under circumstances that made it all but impossible.

And there it was, serving as a bookmark at the opening of the second act of A View from the Bridge, a hit of acid on a piece of paper wrapped in cellophane, a gift from one of my college roommates, Steve, who became tax attorney in Buffalo. I never had any interest in hallucinogens, until now. I assumed it would’ve lost a lot of its potency after sitting in that book for five years, but I figured I’d give it a try.

The next afternoon, I stopped by Fine and Shapiro, Fanny’s favorite deli, and bought an order of the noodle pudding, a dessert she loved so much that she had a nickname for it: “Little Noodie.” I took a few bites of it and then put the leftover in the refrigerator without so much as a piece of cellophane covering it. I knew Fanny’s relationship with food: he’d see that naked noodle pudding sitting there, unloved, unappreciated, and starting to dry out. I nestled that stale old hit of acid in a deep crevasse between two crispy top noodles, and then I left for work.

When I got home at about midnight, there was Fanny, sitting on one of her kitchen chairs, elbows on the table, palms of her hands cupping her forehead as she stared at nothing in particular.

“You okay?”

“Do I look okay?”

“Can I do something?”

“Yeah. Disappear.”

I retreated to my futon.

An hour later, I heard hysterical laughter coming from the bathroom, followed by, “don’t do that, you-you-you…you little noodie,” followed by more laughter. I couldn’t decipher much else.

Fanny was tripping and having a good old time. I drifted off to sleep with a smile on my face for the first time since I’d moved into the Ansonia.

She was still in bed when I left for work the next afternoon, and when I got home that night, she was on the phone with her friend, Iris.

“I think it was just a combination of being exhausted and drinking too many cocktails after the show; I’m fine now.”

She made no connection to the noodle pudding. Another waste of time, effort, and money.

* * *

Five more months passed until the problem of Fanny eating my food was permanently solved.

While climbing down from her birdbath one morning, Fanny slipped on the ladder and fell. From the living room, I heard a tremendous thud that rattled the windows, and when I went into the kitchen, there was Fanny, lying on the floor. Her neck was twisted at a weird angle, but she was still clutching a pack of cigarettes in one hand, a can of Tab and two empty wrappers from my box of granola bars in the other.

* * *

I got some paper towels and sprayed some 409 on the stepladder to get rid of any trace of the PAM I’d sprayed on it the night before. It actually worked—better than I’d hoped, because I never wanted to kill her, just do a little damage, get a little control.

Once I calmed down, I went into her bedroom, which, as always, looked like it had been struck by a tornado of clothes, shoes, magazines, glasses, wrappers, and ashtrays. The state of her room offended me when I thought of the tongue-lashing she’d given me on the one day I overslept and didn’t have time to put away my futon before rushing off to an audition.

It took a while, but I eventually found it, high on a shelf in her closet, under a stack of old Us magazines and a shoebox filled with half-empty bottles of nail polish—an envelope marked Lease/Ansonia. My hands were shaking when I reached inside and pulled out the papers. The first thing I saw was that the apartment was leased to somebody named Irving Feldman in January of 1958 for $432.18 a month. The next page had been done on a manual typewriter and signed in April 1978. It was an agreement between lessor Irving Feldman and sublessor Florence Kratz to rent Apartment 1610 for $595 a month. That meant I’d been paying more than she was, just to live in a corner of the living room. Fanny and I had been living in Irving Feldman’s illegally sublet apartment the whole time—illegal, because he was making a profit on the rent. There was never any chance that apartment would be mine.

So that was the sort of evidence they had against me—I wouldn’t have thought it was an accident, either. But eight more years, and I’m eligible—maybe there’s a chance I’ll get out of here one day and get my own place. I’d like to live somewhere without a roommate just once before I die.

THE END

“Oddity” by Fabrice B. Poussin