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The Most Unforgettable Person I Never Knew

The Most Unforgettable Person I Never Knew      by Théa Heying

I have chased the idea of her across decades, and she remains a mystery. Did she live on the floor below me, where my balcony leaked storm water through her ceiling? Did she sun herself alongside me at our postage stamp of a pool, where my kids splashed games of Marco Polo? Likely she attended condominium owner meetings, where I was a vocal presence. She rode the elevators with me. She washed her clothes in the fourth-floor laundry room because none of the hundred apartments where we lived had a washer/dryer. The woman knew me or thought she did. I use the pronouns she and her, but I’m not sure of the person’s gender. I just think whoever slashed my name across the laundry room wall in fuchsia letters was a woman.

I wasn’t her only victim, and I wasn’t her first. Two weeks earlier “Trish Thackeray is a shit face,” had decorated the same space. I discovered this graffiti when I decided to get an early jump on Saturday’s chores. I shoved the laundry room door open wide enough to push my cart through, and the ugly words blasted me. Moreover, shockingly, there was Trish, her back to me, her arms upraised, doing something with the crude announcement. She must have heard me because she turned around as I backed out the door. I let it slam shut, stepped to the elevator, and pressed “up.”    

I barely made it back to my apartment before my telephone rang. “Did you write something bad about me on the laundry room wall?” Trish demanded.

“No,” I said, ashamed. “I’ll help you clean up.”

“It’s pretty much done.”

“I’ll meet you there, anyway.”

***

Trish had scrubbed the wall clean, but an aftermath of creepiness remained. The two of us stood among the lines of washers and dryers and joked awkwardly; uneasiness underscored our laughter. Who would do such a childish thing? Building employees? Kids?

“Honey?” I suggested.

“Honey” was Trish’s and my nickname for a flashy-looking, middle-aged, single guy who addressed us as “Honey.” We sucked it up and dealt with our aggravation by privately making fun of him. Trish had finally snapped after he called her “Honey” in a unit owners’ meeting. “It’s not ‘Honey. It’s Mrs. Thackeray to you,” she had said. Fifty or so of our neighbors witnessed the exchange.

But neither Trish nor I figured Honey for a graffiti artist. He may have been a chauvinist, but he wasn’t indirect.

“Fuchs?” I ventured.

Mrs. Geneva Fuchs’s apartment above the building’s open garage featured the same construction glitch as the other ninety-nine units—heating coils embedded in the ceiling. A chill wind off Lake Michigan iced her floor. She insisted the Board fix her problem. Trish had sat on a Board that refused her; years later, I had too. Mrs. Fuchs wore her grudge against her neighbors like a set of shoulder pads, but she was too short to have written anything that high on the wall.                  

Trish and I gave up went home.

The following Saturday the wall sported Trish’s name again. This time, the janitor washed it off.

On Saturday number three, Trish called. "You're in the big-time," she said. “Your name is up there too. Come on down and see for yourself.”

The sight of it packed a wallop. My first and last names slanted diagonally up the concrete wall in a jagged scrawl. I felt sullied by it as if the graffiti itself made me guilty of something. This community had been overwhelmingly good to me. Families cooperated with each other. There weren’t a lot of kids in the building, but those who lived here often played with my kids, slept over, and ate what I’d cooked. Empty nesters doted on my children, hiring them to walk their dogs or feed their cats while they were away. Employees kept a watchful eye out for us. Here was proof the good will wasn’t unanimous.

The spacious, well-lit, fourth-floor laundry room centered our community. In addition to ten washing machines and six dryers, it housed a small library. My neighbors and I passed each other in transit in the lobby and elevators; we conducted condominium business and occasionally socialized in the party room, but it was in the laundry where we regularly rubbed elbows with each other. A few consigned the task to paid help, but most of us washed our own clothes.

Those who enjoyed the humble chore often surprised me. I folded bedding alongside the shortstop for the White Sox, who told me he had acquired his laundering skills when his team was on the road. I waited for the spin cycle to finish with an attorney who had divorced his third wife and shared custody of their African Gray parrot. He regaled me with stories of the bird’s uncanny ability to imitate human speech. I hung up my line-dries with the owner of a restaurant, who invited me up to her apartment for a glass of wine and gave me her recipe for spinach pie. Lively conversation arose from those encounters, memorable and thought provoking. Now someone had gone to the trouble of vandalizing the laundry room specifically to embarrass me. She may as well have hung my name in lights on Sheridan Road or included my mug shot among the Post Office’s most wanted.

Who cared that much? The question gnawed at me. I mentally scanned the building, moving from floor to floor, apartment to apartment. I started a list of suspects:

           I thought of Martha first, and my heart sank. I treasured my decade-long friendship with this East-Coast Bennington firecracker. I was closer to her than to anyone else in the building. She had been a significant support during my divorce and could be counted on for straightforward, if salty advice on thorny issues. But Martha had been drinking more and more since the death of her husband. At times, she drank to the point of amnesia. Could Martha, in an alcoholic rage, wield a fuchsia marker against me? I wasn’t sure.

Harvey? I traded barbs with funny, flamboyant, out-of-the-closet-and–glad-of-it Harvey on a regular basis—usually when we did laundry at the same time. Harvey heckled for sport, and one of our bouts had escalated beyond the boundaries of joshing. We had both flaunted our obnoxious sides; I like to think we were equally a pain-in-the- ass, but I may have been more of one than Harv. Was he capable of graffiti? I thought not.

Alberta? I saw Alberta infrequently; she suffered from a bipolar disorder and kept to herself most of the time. In a psychotic state, she flung bric-a-brac from her eighth-floor apartment window onto the driveway below. On one occasion she paced the laundry room floor muttering to herself while I shoved clothing, bedding, and soap into machines. In a rush to get out of there, I jammed my quarters into the slots. She started toward me. She looked enormous and menacing. A volley of angry words poured from her mouth, and to my surprise, I shouted back at her. The anger she ignited in me lasted only as long as it took me to make my exit from the laundry room. Would she remember the incident and seek revenge? Chances were she didn’t. Who knew?

My paranoia took on a life of its own. I'd raised the ire of my neighbor across the hall after I initiated a refurbishment project while they wintered in Florida. My teenage daughter had rebuffed a garage worker who hit on her. Even my friend Trish, who had been first to have her name taken in vain, was not exempt from my suspicion. What if she had put my name up on the wall the third Saturday because she thought I had written the original words? I didn't believe this, but I didn't know what to believe.

I cased out my neighbors in the lobby as we waited for our mail, and I scrutinized their behavior in the elevator. A dozen people appeared suspect, and then the number shrank to zero. It was time to change my method.

For three weeks in a row, the graffiti had appeared between midnight on Friday and six o’clock Saturday morning. If the pattern held, I could nail the culprit red-handed. Early on the fourth Saturday, the building superintendant unlocked a utility closet across from the laundry room for me. I stationed myself inside on a step stool, left the door an inch ajar, and waited. Neighbors straggled into the laundry room and started their loads. A few stayed, but most went back to their apartments and drifted back for the dryers thirty minutes later. Each time someone left the laundry room I scurried out from my hiding place and checked for graffiti. The wall remained pristine.

           Two hours passed and boredom set in. I was about to give up when a parrot-like woman with a topiary hairdo and a purple housecoat stepped off the elevator trailing her loaded laundry cart. She paused before she opened the door to the laundry room, turned, and scanned the opposite wall. Her eyes lit on the opening in the utility closet door and me lurking in the darkness. She belted out an operatic screech. The building superintendent came running. A scattering of people rushed from the laundry room to see what was going on. I tried in vain to explain.

The graffiti never reappeared. 1587 words

 


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