Posted by Lee | Filed under Fiction
It’s been a while since I posted anything. So here’s a short story I originally published way back in ’08 in the now-defunct but once very relevant (until Harper Govt cut its funding down to zilch) Vancouver Review. It’s set in 2000, during the leaky condo crisis. I rented a place in a leaky condo, lived under tarps for about nine months while carpenters cursed at each other on the scaffolding outside my windows. My landlord — at another place — called her son ‘the handicap’ — he was microcephalic and he used to come over to shovel gravel around.
The handicap on the first floor was famous online before he died of the black mold. Really, it was the nineteen-nineties that killed him, the stucco pioneers who developed all Vancouver’s condominiums that decade used blueprints meant for the San Fernando Valley where the annual rainfall is one blue drop. In Vancouver it rains unquenchingly for months on end, pours interrupted by the occasional deluge and chronic fog spells. Many of the city’s suburbs are built precariously over swamps.
Rain damage to my condo was so severe by the year 2001 that the handicap on the ground floor lived inside a veritable mushroom. The condo was on a slope, and the handicap’s condo was at the bottom. He lived inside this fungus with his widowed mother.
He hardly left the suite. Even while the black mold was turning his air to poison. He was born with a condition, his mother reminded other tenants, he doesn’t mix with others. When she sold her serger on eBay and I volunteered to carry it out to the buyer’s halfton Honda, I got a look at how bad their suite was. The walls were so soaked they’d returned to their original form, mud. As the rain leaked in from every direction, all that kept the whole place from collapsing was the sturdy fungus that had grown itself a wholly-enveloping mycelium inside the walls of their condominium suite. The black mold made the walls look as if someone spilled pepper across them and your hand got clammy if you wiped it over the surface. Big round coppery stains speckled the waterlogged ceiling. The ceiling sagged over the mother and her handicap like an old mattress over their heads, with a chandelier screwed into it. And a huge greasy stain around the chandelier, and water dripping off the cut glass teardrops into buckets set up on the dining room table next to the mother’s manual sewing machine and the handicap’s stack of operas.
I remember the handicap died a few days after they found Saddam inside his hidey hole because for a week their stories were paired on the local evening news, the handicap’s story ran first, notably. I think the horror and the despair and confusion of so much loss was too much for the handicap. I don’t mean Saddam. I mean the condo, his mother; his mother called him that. Where’s the handicap? Have you seen the handicap? she asked if she caught you in the hallway with your groceries. She’d be standing there as if she was just picking up an envelope that had dropped from her hand. There was never any envelope, and she never stood back up, she stayed stooped that way. Even in this vulture stance, she was a metre and a half tall. On top of that, her hair was a giant smoky and dusty frizz like an urban detonation, and that’s all you saw of her face, except every once in a while her red nose. Usually you could hear her squawk before you saw her and you could avoid her.
I told the handicap to get some exercise, she crowed. Her voice was always so loud, so easily offended. I told him to go sweep, get some exercise, but he’s not there. Have you seen my handicap? She usually demanded her handicap go sweep at least once or twice a week. Cyclones of urban grit always scraped up everything in this narrow canyon between our condo and the one next to us. Once or twice a week the handicap spent the better part of his day pushing a broom down the sidewalks out front of our condo. And you inevitably heard opera bouncing up the glass sheath of the building, rising from the lane where he swept trash into piles, bagged, and dumped it. He swept two strokes, stood up, wiped his forehead, singing meanwhile, then two more strokes of the broom. Everyone in our condo and the ones around us knew him a little because you inevitably heard him singing opera and wanted to know the source of such a voice.
A noontime newsanchor on a local affiliate lived in 510. Blond and full-figured, pebbly skin, you’d recognize her if you ever saw her. I once invited the newsanchor back to my suite for coffee, and she agreed, but in the elevator I made light of her celebrity, thinking it would make me seem less superficial to her if I was able to see past the image. I said that she was better known for her picture on the back of a bus because no one watches the lunch-hour news but shut-ins. I realized my mistake instantly, that I’d ruffled her feminine ego, and she suddenly feigned exhaustion from a long day at her career and slipped out on the third floor when the mother stepped in. Have you seen the handicap? she screamed at me from underneath her hair, pushing the G-button. I didn’t hear what else she said, I kept thinking how I could have said anything else to the newsanchor and she would have fallen for me, instead of, as I’d watch progress, the strata president.
Before they caught Saddam, before even 9/11, early in the summer of 2001, the strata council met in the rec room and the president tabled the issue of the cost of a complete recladding of our condo. The president of our strata was a reluctant leader, a young ambitious lawyer with a shaved head and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses that he claimed were designed by a local architect. Although it helped ease his finger into the newsanchor, he didn’t otherwise push hard in his responsibility as strata council president. Frankly, no one wanted to be strata council president. His background in law made him an obvious choice for wicker man. What do I mean by recladding? our strata president said without concealing his despair. For the last time he wanted to reiterate and emphasize what was involved in recladding before we voted to begin construction. He read aloud from his notes: Building envelope failures are the direct result of poor and inappropriate design and shoddy workmanship. And then some, said the handicap’s mother. Yes, on this subject our president got no argument. He was leading us down a delicate path of consensus. We understood our options were gone. We understood from how our president laid out the predicament before us that we had no choice but to vote to begin construction. No matter what the cost. He said that recladding meant anything from four to fourteen months of living behind scaffolding, blue tarps, construction workers in your face from seven am to four pm all week, and at least a few days work on the interior of each of the suites. And especially if, as in the case of the mother and her handicap, the mold had damaged the interior, then work on the suite could take as long as a month.
The mother slowly coughed something into a handkerchief and finally let out a weary sigh. Of all the people in the building, the mother and the handicap were the most conspicuous personification of our collective conscience, imploring us with their slow-death infirmities to do the right thing and begin to pay for the wholesale repairs needed to save our homes from rotting.
At this point the strata president reminded us—more out of paranoid due diligence than anything—that we had voted unanimously at a previous meeting for the cost to be divided equally among all suites regardless of damage, then he quickly announced the per suite quote as fifty thousand. Fifty thousand. The handicap’s mother gasped so deeply I could size the tumours in her blackened throat. Flapping her hands in front of her pale neck, she fainted, slumped off her chair and slowly fell on to the rotted, stain-resistant carpet. In the panic that ensued, the whole strata council leapt from their plastic seats to aid her, and the handicap exploded in a virtuoso performance of the overture to Verdi’s La Traviata. His mother lay face-first on the wall-to-wall. No one knew if she was dead or being dramatic. Her handicap’s voice rang out in the rec room. The overture never sounded so mournful or so alive as when I heard it that day. Pavarotti himself could not have quaked our hearts so deeply. Alagna was a mimic of true emotion when compared with the soaring desperation that I heard in the handicap’s voluble tenor that afternoon at the strata council meeting. It was as if the ghost of Caruso haunted the handicap’s bent flesh, his immortal spirit’s prison, opera’s greatest, buried alive inside a terminally-ill adolescent, this legendary voice coming from a dying gimp.
We were wowed. Most of us had heard the handicap sing before. I knew of at least one tenant in the building who had a popular video on his freelance graphic design website featuring the handicap in the alley sweeping and singing Verdi; it helped him attract traffic to his site. But this was the first time the newsanchor ever heard him sing and she was overwhelmed. On her thick knees sobbing. Wailing. Her life was coming to an end, her perception of news was being shattered. Her tears left very thick mascara trails down her face as the saltwater carved through the TV foundation on her cheeks. She looked beautiful, and for the first time I saw all the strength she had, the human strength for true empathy that made her a presence on television and in an elevator, and gave her the power to change the world. Her will to live. I used to think she was just hanging off the teleprompter, but no. She could strip away her ego and dive naked into a living moment. I could not. I stood there as flat as backdrop, witness to despair and terror thundering around me. She kneeled at the handicap’s side with her hands in his lap, sobbing as silently as she could while his voice plowed over us.
The president stood holding the three-inch binder that kept our strata council minutes and fanning it over the mother’s face while we waited for paramedics. He, too, strata council president, cried and cried, and no one said a word because the handicap sang so beautifully, in a state of complete hypnosis from the anxiety of the situation, which he clearly found unbearable, and the only way he could express his sorrow and fear was through Verdi.
Fifty thousand dollars. For six figures we each bought a bit of a big wet rag and now we had to pay another fifty thousand more to wring it out. I was sure as hell frustrated that day. The futility of our situation drove me crazy. And in my anger I threw a can of soft drink on the floor. The can popped a tiny hole and a thin jet of misty cola pushed the can along the floor like a wheel, wetting us.
There was a time in 2001 when it felt like all I ever thought about was the handicap and his incredible voice. I’d come home from work and immediately turn on the TV news and check the Internet. The previous spring, I finally got high speed. I became obsessed with news websites and personal homepages.
Then the handicap’s mother died of lung cancer, a month after the Saudi college students plowed the airliners into the World Trade Centre. She lived through the fainting spell that day in the rec room, but it was a sure sign of her decline.
The handicap sang beautifully at her funeral. His voice had grown in the last year to develop a fuller range, and the circumstance brought out all the emotion of his arias. Under his ill-fitting black Moore’s, I could see he had lost weight. He was gaunt, had dirty ears, long fingernails. Since she died, the handicap wasn’t being well taken care of. Left to fend for himself, even a week was a long time. He stood there shaking on his crutches, singing. I could see his mother’s hair fuzzing out above the lid of the open coffin. Many of the other people in the condo attended, too, spread out in the pews. The fast-food families. Students. Gays. The small-dog owners. We were all there for the funeral. For the last six months whenever we saw each other in the elevators or hallways we’d been marvelling at the handicap’s online popularity. We were proud of him. He had talent. The Internet proved it. The video of him singing and sweeping was being discussed and referenced on other popular websites and online media and our neighbour’s personal homepage was getting a lot of traffic. We hardly noticed all the construction around us, our fifty thousand dollars being pasted up around us. We paid attention to the Internet. We listened to the handicap sing opera.
We watched our newsanchor in 510’s reports on the noon hour show about the handicap and our condo crisis. She interviewed us, though not me personally. The story had some impact on the problem, but not soon enough to save us any money.
I sometimes wonder where they are now, all those other ruined tenants. I know the newsanchor and our strata council president bounced back financially, got married, and I watched her first broadcast when she was promoted to the five-thirty early news slot. I know the graphic designer still makes websites and now teaches making websites.
Every once in a while I log into the chat room the graphic designer created and maintains where we keep each other posted on news related to the leaky condo crisis. The last time I checked there was a comment posted linking to an article from a newspaper out of Houston, Texas, about a man who was brutally murdered. Their main suspect in the murder was a Canadian at large. The Houston police alleged the motive was that the deceased was the chief developer who built the man’s leaky condominium up here in Vancouver, our condo. The article mentioned how the developers of the condominium had all long-since vanished by the time the first signs of leaks began to show up. Our first leaks were showing up in the handicap’s suite as a early as 1997, when issues regarding the condo’s structural integrity were still being dodged in strata meetings so as not to scare off potential buyers reading our minutes. By the time the building was assessed and the cost was estimated, read the Houston report, no one could be rounded up to be held accountable, so there was no one to sue. The news link described one grisly detail after another. It also mentioned that the alleged? Canadian murderer stabbed his victim fifty thousand times. The police used international dental records to ID the victim. He wasn’t cut to pieces, he was stabbed that many times, said local police. His body was reportedly an unrecognizable mush.
The tenant who posted the news link was the newsanchor. She added a comment with the link that asked us whether we thought it served the developer right for what he did to the widowed mother and her handicap, to say nothing of all of us? I wanted to post a reply to her comment, but I didn’t know the answer, and I couldn’t risk exposing my IP address. But nevertheless, reading her question to us, I was reminded of those stressful days stuck in that predicament, our special connection brought us together somehow, saddled with all that brutal debt, our destroyed homes, dying families, lost opportunities. My heart instantly filled with all the old anger. Fifty thousand dollars it cost each of us to renovate thanks to the negligence of our dead developer. I wondered if the handicap was angry like I was that day in the rec room when he broke out in song, thrashed by emotion, in pain and crying out, or was some other more mature emotion responsible for that heavenly tenor.
*found this photo by Derek K. Miller via the internet