“Nothin’ to see here.”
These were the first words spoken to me by my new neighbor’s son. He was sifting through a small wad of cash, next to another teenager with his baseball cap pulled over his eyes and his hands stuffed in his pockets. I, meanwhile, was carrying an armful of books and a conspicuously large stuffed bear, while my mother followed with a hamper of clothing.
We locked eyes only briefly. The individual horrors of our respective first impressions, when experienced simultaneously, combined into an unutterable commentary about the zero sum nature of polite society, and no matter how bad things would get in the future, we had a silent agreement never to speak about this moment again.
The son was mostly an invisible entity in my building. My roommates and I sketched his core qualities by analyzing the effects on the environment, inferring his position and velocity via the number of the police outside our building and their disposition. They stopped by about twice a month. There were only three or four occasions when our building was completely surrounded. The police exuded an aggressive ennui when I talked to them. “Oh, the Munjoy boy again. Usually drugs.”
Being the occasional most wanted member of Portland’s pseudoghetto barely registers as crime when compared to the rest of the world, so the son wasn’t my problem most of the time.
The problem was his father. The problem was Mister Munjoy.
Munjoy Hill is name of the Northwest toe of the boot part of Portland that tourists actually know about. Despite it being barely a mile from the sometimes popular downtown area, it’s the part of town that refuses to even seasonally gentrify, regardless of the economic prosperity of the port part of Portland. There aren’t any shops or ships or mountains or lobster restaurants on Munjoy Hill, which in Maine is the set of parameters that circumscribe the locations people drive through rather than to.
For me and Dan, it was the part of town where we could get an entire floor of a building for $750 a month. That’s fightin’ rent. We took it. The main living room, not to be confused with the foyer or the secondary living room, was larger than the apartment I live in now. We kept the gym in that room. And the poker table. And most of the couches. And our four guitars and two amps. And when six people were playing poker, two people were passed out on the floor, all the couches were occupied, and that one guy on cocaine insisted on working out, there was still space to set up a modest photo shoot against one of the walls, and people wouldn’t even have to walk through your shot to get to the bathroom.
If I was shown an apartment that size with that price tag anywhere in the New York metropolitan area, I would leave quickly with my back to the wall and one hand on my cell phone trying to dial 911 and wishing there were still tactile buttons on cell phones. It would be a laughably transparent scam. In Portland, Maine, in 2003, it was on the cusp of believability, and both Dan and I were fresh out of college, so we didn’t ask questions.
“I didn’t watch my friends die in Vietnam so I could watch my grandmother’s picture fall off the wall because a couple skinny punks can’t keep their goddamn music down! I’ll fucking kill you! I’m Mister Munjoy, ask anyone!”
Some sentences leave you with limited responses. I crossed “witty retort” off my list, and tried to buy myself time by gaping and blinking. I did some quick analysis: screaming man is six inches shorter than me, at least thirty years older, is apparently a Vietnam veteran. Graying hair and beard. Has grandmother, and portrait of aforementioned grandmother on his wall. I scan my memory for loud music and come up empty, however, both Dan and I play bass, so that could easily trickle downstairs. I hazard a response:
“I should fuckin’ think so. Keep your goddamn music down.”
He goes inside.
I go upstairs. Dan cracks a beer and hands it to me. “Mister Muffjoy?”
“Fuck that guy.”
As dim as the memories are, I’m sure we could have done a little better by Mister Munjoy. Dan and I were twenty-three. I know Dan got drunk and made some noise. I know I crawled up the stairs while singing improvised drinking songs more than once. We partied here and there, though not as much as the average neighbor of recent college grads has a right to fear, since we were both pretty depressive personalities and liked keeping to ourselves and practicing bass. Obviously practicing bass was a problem, but we made an effort to keep it down, since we lived above a psychotic veteran and his drug dealing son, and that’s the kind of family with which you want to keep contact to a minimum.
At least Dan and I were together in this, until I slept with Dan’s ex-girlfriend and then she decided she wanted him back and accused me of being a coward until I told him so she could get back together with him with moderately less guilt. I think of her as one of the worst people I’ve known: she didn’t mention her genital warts until two weeks after we slept together, and she put the blame for our joint betrayal of Dan entirely on my plate, but having slightly higher moral ground does not constitute Moral High Ground, so I told Dan, and Dan didn’t speak to me for most of the rest of our cohabitation.1
Being no longer together in this made Mister Munjoy’s psychotic rants all the more confusing. Who was playing bass? Was I too drunk that night? The sin and the punishment were uncoupled, because Dan and I didn’t trade notes and avoided being in the same place. It wasn’t clear who had triggered Mister Munjoy’s latest death threat. The situation became Kafkaesque as the punishments fell randomly, with no apparent connection to the choices either of us made.
Dan and I both brought a cat to the apartment. His was a Cat, mine a kitten. You would never confuse the kitten with its arms wrapped around Dan’s cat’s leg with the moody monster that lives with me today, but they are the same feline.
When Dan stopped speaking to me, and stopped spending much time in the apartment, his cat began to wither. When it died, Dan sent me a text message saying it might have had worms, and my cat may have given it to him, so I should get my cat checked out. I knew my cat didn’t have worms. Some of us said his cat died of loneliness, because of Dan’s absence, and the part of me trying to find an exit from the guilt of betrayal loved this explanation, but it’s not the truth. Nobody knows why Dan’s cat died, but all of us let it die.
Dan and I made some kind of peace, involving punching each other, but we were never the friends we’d been before. From an academic standpoint, I could and did accuse Dan of being uncommunicative, but prescribing the best method of healing to the person you’ve wronged when the method makes your own life easier is synonymous with being an asshole. Then Dan moved out. One of us should probably have done this earlier, but I’ve already described the primary living room, so it should be obvious why neither of us did.
While I was helping Dan carry out the poker table, Mister Munjoy cornered us in the stairway.
“You motherfuckers,” he opened, “I brought my boy so you can’t fucking threaten me.”
Out of all of us, the boy, Portland’s occasionally most wanted, looked the most frightened. I couldn’t see Dan’s face, but after six months of listening to Mister Munjoy’s ranting threats, I imagine he had the same sociopathic expression I had: a neutral mask hiding the calculation of how much jail time we would face if we just killed this old man on the spot. Throw the table at the son, deal with him after we stomped on this spitting, screaming asshole’s neck, take twenty minutes to come up with our story, call the police, case closed.
“One more goddamn time and I’ll fucking kill you! You understand? I’m sick of it, I’ll walk right up there and break your goddamn fingers.”
“I’m moving out,” said Dan, so deadpan I had to choke down a laugh.
Mister Munjoy didn’t miss a beat. “Fine then, it’s just you,” he pointed his fist at me. “So help me god, my grandmother’s picture rattles one more time I will beat you to death, you hear me? I will fuck your pale skinny ass up! You hear me? You fucking hear me?”
Calculate, calculate, calculate. This old, small, weakening man. Screaming at me. I’m holding a table. Idiot boy six steps behind the old man. Old man is really trying to assert some alpha dog status I still kind of care about because I’m twenty-three. Blood pressure at unhealthy levels. Breathe.
I say, “Yes.”
He leaves, taking Portland’s occasionally most wanted with him. I help Dan finish moving out.
I worked as a video editor in Portland, and every morning, I would get bacon and eggs at a little breakfast nook across the hall from my office. The guy who ran it was always friendly, and we’d usually have a nice chat during my half-hour reprieve from my windowless editing cave. I finally mentioned Mister Munjoy one day.
“He’s threatens to kill me a lot, but, I don’t know, he’s a Vietnam vet, and that’s a serious thing.”
He rolled his eyes. “Forget that. I served three years in ‘nam. He’s an asshole, doesn’t matter where he’s been.”
My next roommate is Shawn. Shawn is not depressed most of the time, and has a talent for not taking shit the way you have to when you’re one of the few black people living in Maine. He also just doesn’t generate friction the way most people do: he’s smart, enthusiastic, forgiving, and a good dancer. It’s not scientifically clear to me why good dancers seem to have such a better handle on life than I do, but I intend to dedicate my retirement to tango lessons until I uncover their secrets.
When Shawn moves in, Mister Munjoy seems a little more distant, while the son seems to want to know us all of a sudden. I’m not saying it’s a racist thing, but it’s a racist thing. It comes to a head after a long night of Magic the Gathering. The son is on the street with his girlfriend, and yells up through our window, “Hey! Hey! You guys got any weed?”
We laugh—because we have lots of weed and are all extremely stoned—and ignore him.
“Heeeey! HEY! Don’t ignore me, you guys got weed?”
“Nope!” shouts Shawn, “Fresh out!”
“Sorry!” I shout, “Next time!”
We ignore his shouting and finish our game. Eventually, one of our friends heads out. About twenty seconds after he shuts the front door, we hear the son on the street.
“Hey, I don’t like when people lie to me.”
The five us still in the living room fall silent.
“Look man,” says our friend, “I’m going home, not my business.”
“You got a problem with me?”
The five of us get up and run to the door and down the stairs. The son is not prepared for five large people to be staring him down and breathing heavily.
“Yo,” shouts Shawn, “don’t you ever bother my friends.”
Portland’s occasionally most wanted proceeds, hilariously, to hide behind his girlfriend. “Hey, you guys are liars man and I—”
“Shut the fuck up. You do not. Mess. With my friends. You got a problem, you bring it me. I don’t harass your friends, you don’t harass mine, am I being clear?”
We can see our friend making his exit down the street.
“Man,” says the son, “You just can’t be lying—”
“Fuck this, I’m out,” says Shawn, and we all go back upstairs. I’m trembling a little, the chance for physical vengeance having come so close one more time. Breathe.
I’m the last up, and just before I go, I hear Mister Munjoy open his door and say to his son, “What the fuck are you doing? Get inside.”
I’ve accidentally stolen three library books, and never suffered a consequence, because in every case the library forgot who I was. I still have a book of poetry that College of the Atlantic told me doesn’t exist, even after I showed them their own stamp on the back cover. I took a moral position to not check out library books, because libraries are an objective good and I was an objective thief draining public services. After a few years, there was a book I really, really wanted to read, and it was too long to finish in the library, so I decided to try one more time to take a book out of a library and return it.
I’d finished the book two weeks prior, and fully intended to return it, but I was already close to missing the bus Shawn was driving me to, so I asked him if he could swing by the library on his way home.
“Of course man, no problem,” he said.
I’m sure something happened over the next three days that seemed important at the time. It probably involved my very young girlfriend of the time sneaking out of her parents’ house after midnight to spend the very early morning with me on the living room couch at my friends’ house. Everybody liked her, but this arrangement put a bit of a strain on my friends’ nerves, which I tried to soothe with weekly gifts of whiskey and expensive cheese. It generally worked.
Cerebus is not big on meows. He wasn’t particularly vocal when he was one year old, and I think he saved them all up to signal for treats in his twilight years.
At three years old, he let rip a meowfest to wake the gods, as I hit the halfway point on the stairs to my apartment. When I got to the top, I saw a bowl of food and a bowl of water next to the loudest Cerebus I’ve heard before or since. I took a moment to process the experience, since all of the things occupying my attention should have been on the other side of my apartment door.
Two minutes after I moved everything back to its proper place, as I was examining a huge hole in my screen rimmed with what looked like Cerebus’s fur, Shawn burst through the door.
“Dude, you would not believe my weekend.”
It turned out Shawn had been pulled over immediately after dropping me off, and it was his third time being pulled over with expired registration, so he’d spent the last three days in jail.
It was a few more days before I put everything together. Cerebus had run out of food and company by the end of the first day, tried to claw his way out the screen, and got stuck. Mister Munjoy called up a friend with a ladder and a truck, rescued my cat, and put him in the hallway with food and water.
I lasted another four months at the apartment, before my unemployment and Shawn’s coke habit got us evicted. Munjoy never brought it up, and I never figured out a way to say anything to him.
When I left, I gave away a few things, and one day I was trailing after my friend as he carried some couch cushions down the stairs, on the way to his apartment. Munjoy was smoking a cigarette in his doorway. He smirked at me.
“What, make your buddies do all the work?” he said.
I shrugged. “When you got slave labor, might as well use it.”
He laughed from his gut, and that was our last conversation.
I never saw Mister Munjoy again. Dan and I are Facebook friends, but not much more. Shawn’s car was impounded along with my library book, and I don’t visit libraries anymore. Cerebus stares out of windows, but I don’t know what he sees.
1 I’m pretty sure I’ve told some version of this story in previous work. Overlap is the price of having a mostly autobiographical writing career. Sucking at life is literary gold; you’re bound to retread old mines.