“Yo Aram!” the foreman yelled, banging a flannelled arm on the door to the basement apartment. “Open up man, we need to talk.” The foreman banged again. Footsteps on the other side of the orange door drew close, and then a series of locks dragged and scraped, before Aram appeared in an undershirt, smiling wide.
“Larry, yes? What it is?” Aram asked in his thick Armenian accent.
“Everyone was supposed to be out by Friday, but my guys tell me someone is still in apartment three-oh-six.” The foreman was peeking past Aram’s shoulder, looking into his apartment to make sure that the super had begun packing his own things. Aram noticed.
“Would you like to come in to talk?” he asked, stepping clear of the threshold to his subterranean home and waving his arm in a grand gesture of invitation.
The foreman shook his head. “No, thanks anyway. I can’t stick around. I just came to ask about the last tennant. Why haven’t they left yet?”
“Yes, three-oh-six is old lady,” Aram explained. “Ms. Mary. Very nice, but very old. She cannot move herself and must wait for son to come from Pittsburgh to help.”
“I see,” the foreman nodded. “When’s this guy supposed to show up? We’re ripping all the walls on the rest of floor three now. I got demo guys coming next week to start laying charges, but I can’t even kill power and water til you’re both out.”
Aram smiled, and tamped the air in front of his chest with his hands. “Yes, all will be on time. Ms. Mary, other day she tell me that son coming on weekend, and she will be moved.”
The foreman was shaking his head. “Aram, that’s cutting it really close. I gotta have all the walls down and the copper pulled ASAP. I’m still waiting to do your unit too, you know.”
“Yes, I know. But I’m super. I cannot leave with old lady still in building. Trust, trust, I be out very quick as soon as old lady is gone.”
“Jesus Christ. OK, Aram. I’m counting on you. Get that old broad out. It’s fifty grand a day in labor costs to keep the crew. This building has to come down on the first, or it’s my ass. And if it’s my ass, I’ll make damn sure it’s your ass too.”
Aram smiled even wider, his eyes squinting beneath his greased black hair. “Yes, trust. Building will be empty for right on time.”
The work crew was gone by four PM. In the lobby of the building, hundreds of bootprints dirtied the white tile floor. At a wall of brass mailboxes, Aram stopped and flipped through keys on a ring. He opened his mailbox to find it empty. Stepping to his left, he flipped through his keys again, and then opened box number 306. Aram withdrew the stack of mail it contained, and examined each piece. It was all junk. Credit card applications, coupons, offers to buy commemorative coins. He dropped the wad of envelopes into the black plastic trash can the demolition crew left at the base of the stairs.
Walking down the hallway with a stack of flattened cardboard under his arm, the door to every unit on floor three was gone. As Aram passed them, each apartment was dark and bare, walls gone, carpet torn out. The absence of life was haunting. Over his twenty year tenure as the building superintendent, he had been in each of these units for one reason or another. He fixed the broken shower door in 302. Replaced the faulty light switch in 305. None of that work mattered now. The building would be gone in two weeks, and with it, his twenty years of work.
306 was the only unit on the floor that still had a door. Standing before it, Aram raised his ring of keys, and flipped through them until he found the one that fit this particular lock. Stepping inside, he was greeted by a game show theme song playing to an empty living room. An audience applauded while a woman jumped up and down clapping on the twenty year old television that didn’t have a cable box. He turned off the TV, and street noise seeped through the panes of the closed windows, lending the room a din of sound. A thin band of yellow light peaked out beneath the bedroom door at the end of a short hallway, just past the tiny kitchen. Aram shook his head and sighed, wincing as he bent his stiff body down onto his knees where he set to work, folding the flat cardboard into functional moving boxes.
Mary didn’t have many possessions, but they were all still defiantly standing exactly as she had placed them decades ago. The foreman had a set of keys of his own, and it was not out of the question that he’d send his crew into the old woman’s apartment. If they found that she hadn’t even begun packing, the foreman was likely to get angry. Aram didn’t want conflict. He wanted everything to go smoothly. He had plans of his own.
Wincing again under the effort of standing, Aram carried an empty box against his round belly and made his way to the kitchen. The first box he filled with her pans and casserole dishes. Packing tape screamed as it stretched across cardboard flaps, and then he took a second box to the linen closet, filling it with her neatly folded bedsheets and pillow cases. Packing tape screamed again. He looked to the yellow light beneath the bedroom door. His heavy breathing was the only sound. The third box he filled with the ceramic statues of children and angels that had all been placed just so on end tables and shelves. They should have been wrapped in crumpled newspaper, but he hadn’t thought to bring any. Packing tape screamed. He walked an empty box to the old woman's great mahogany bookshelf. Training his eyes on the wall behind the shelf, he looked for the place where the paint didn’t match. Only Aram would notice the discrepancy, because he was the one who feathered the edges of the new paint over the fresh drywall, trying to make it match the rest of the room. Finding the imperfection in the paint, Aram sighed and returned the task at hand, examining the old woman’s books. A full set of encyclopedias, mystery novels, books about angels, everything in hardcover. The thought of emptying the shelf made Aram sweat. Wiping his forehead with his sleeve, he lowered the empty box to the floor. The books he would leave in place.
When five boxes were full and sealed, he stacked them conspicuously close to the door. Scanning the room, he nodded, feeling that it looked as though a significant effort was underway to move out. Aram quietly walked towards the old woman’s bedroom, and opened the door a crack, just enough to slip his arm in and flick the light switch off, before letting himself out, and locking the deadbolt behind him.
The crew was at work every day by seven a.m. Sledgehammers hit walls, sawzalls cut through drywall, floors two, four, and five were a swirl of white dust in the gleaming morning sun. Steel toed boots stomped about, energy drink cans and fast food wrappers littered the halls. With his few belongings stuffed into boxes, Aram marched up and down the stairs from the basement to the alley where his cousin Gor had parked his jeep.
“Is that last box?” Gor asked, exhaling smoke.
“Yes,” Aram huffed, straining to heft a brown box into the back of the Jeep. Aram’s forehead was glazed with sweat, and the neck and armpits of his white undershirt were soaked. “Now just furniture left,” he wheezed.
Gor took a final drag from his cigarette, then dropped it to the asphalt. He closed the hatch, and followed Aram into the building. Over the next half hour, they removed Aram’s couch, kitchen table and mattress, leaving them all against the blue construction dumpster in the alley.
The only piece of furniture left in the Aram’s apartment was a worn armchair. “You want we should get rid of old rat chair, too?” Gor asked.
“No, no. I sleep in chair for last nights in building. Workers can lift out chair when they come for rip out walls.”
“Why still stay here? Building is empty now, no?”
“One tenant left,” Aram answered. “When she go, I go.”
In the driver’s seat of his Jeep, Gor lit a cigarette. Through the open window, Aram handed him a wad of cash. “Thank you cousin. I come for my things soon. Just keep in garage, please.”
“Voch’ mi khndir,” Gor said, counting the bills Aram had given him.
As he returned to the building, Aram passed a crew of men in hardhats unloading lengths of chain link fence from the back of a flatbed truck. Passing the mailboxes in the bright lobby, Aram checked his gold wristwatch. It was still early, the postman never came before noon. Aram descended the stairs to his dim apartment, and sat in the lonely chair. He lit a cigarette, and waited.
“Aram? You in there?” the foreman was pounding on his door. “Open up, pal, we need to talk.” More pounding.
Aram wiped his eyes and leaned forward over his belly. He needed both hands to push himself upward from the deep cushion of the loveseat. “Yes, I coming,” he said. Aram opened his door fully, knowing the foreman would appreciate the sight of his empty apartment.
“I need you to sign this paper here.” The foreman handed Aram a ten page document that was folded in half. “It’s a contract between the landlord and my company. There’s a spot for you to sign saying you did a final check that all residents and their property were cleared.”
Aram was squinting as he examined the front page. “I need glasses. Come in.”
The foreman stepped into the small apartment, but didn’t follow Aram, who went all the way to the kitchen where his reading glasses sat on the counter next to a ring of keys and a soft pack of cigarettes. The black arms of Aram’s glasses disappeared into the black hair on the side of his head, and he held the papers aloft as he scanned them.
With his hardhat under his arm, the foreman’s eyes bounced around the bare apartment. “I see you got your things out.”
“Yes, cousin help me few day ago,” Aram replied, still focused on the paperwork.
“I also notice that the tenant in three-oh-six is still not moved out.” The foreman spoke loudly, “I thought her boy was coming over the weekend?”
Aram set the papers on the counter. “You have pen? I have no pen here.”
The foreman started patting his pockets. When he found his pen, he walked to the kitchen counter opposite Aram.
Aram’s eyes were on the paperwork as he spoke. “Old lady start move out. I bring her boxes, and I see she begin to pack them. Think son took partly her things. Maybe car not so big. Maybe need two trip.”
“Where is she right now? I’d ask her myself, but my guys said she’s never in her room.”
Aram shrugged. “She like go for walks. Go to park, or to the movie. Old lady, who know what she do with so much free time.” Aram signed the last page of the document, and handed it to the foreman.
The foreman double checked that Aram had signed the correct line. Seeing his cursive, the spiraling ‘A’ and the big, looping ‘M’ of Aram’s name, the foreman was satisfied. He folded the paperwork, and before stuffing it into the butt pocket of his jeans, he waved it and said, “Remember, if it’s my ass, it’s your ass.”
The wiring in the stairwell was still in place. Until the last tenants were gone, the building had to be safe for occupancy. Floor three still had glowing red exit signs and orange glowing bulbs recessed in the ceiling. Two, four and five though, were stripped to their bones. Aram walked those floors when the workers left. On the top floor, he smoked cigarettes and marveled at the wide open space where twelve families lived only last month. The crew had done a remarkable job clearing the debris they created, dumping all of it into a trash chute they affixed to what had once been the living room window in 512. Standing next to it and looking out over the city, Aram leaned his hand onto the brick that had always been hidden from view. He lit a fresh cigarette and thought about his life. Being an immigrant wasn’t easy. Learning a language as an adult. Finding work. His handyman skills were his leg up. Being a superintendent had been thankless, low paying work. If it weren’t for the free rent in the one-windowed basement apartment, he could never have afforded life on the wage he was paid. Now that was all over. Who would want to hire an aging foreigner with bad knees and poor eyesight? Fortunately for him, he had been smart. He had made plans.
Aram dropped his cigarette butt to the concrete and stepped on it with the toe of his shoe. Reaching for his keyring, he felt its weight. Flipping through the keys, he removed the ones he no longer needed, and one by one tossed them into the trash chute. Such little things, if they made a noise when they hit bottom, he couldn’t hear it. When he got to the key to room 306, he smiled. Floor three wasn’t quite dead yet. Mary, the building’s oldest and longest resident, made sure of that.
“Yo, Aram!” The foreman beat on the orange door harder and harder. “Come on buddy, open up.” The foreman removed his white hard hat and ran his fingers through his graying hair. He tried to listen for noise within Aram’s apartment, but the avalanche of sound in the building above made it impossible. Saws were ripping through metal, sledge hammers were crashing through sheetrock, boots were pounding in every direction. “Dammit Aram, that old broad’s still in three-oh-six! My guys are in her place right now. We had to move all her shit out to the curb!” He waited for a response, and when none came, he begged, “Is she still living in there? Aram! Answer me?”
“Yo, Larry!” A voice yelled down the stairs behind the foreman. “Demo guys want to start setting charges on five, what should I tell ‘em?”
“I’ll be up in two minutes!” the foreman barked over his shoulder. He pulled a massive keyring from his back pocket, and began fumbling through the silver keys, squinting in the dark to read the tiny black numbers taped to their sides. “You said last weekend! Now it’s Friday again! I told you it would be your ass!” When he found the key to Aram’s door, the foreman slipped it in the lock and yelled, “Aram, you son of a bitch, I’m coming in!”
The foreman barged into the basement apartment, and stepped through a shaft of yellow daylight that gleamed through the unit’s narrow, head-high window. “Aram!” the foreman called out, as he charged down the hall to the bedroom. Finding it empty, he stomped back to the living room, muttering to himself. “Dammit, where is that asshole?”
“Larry, get up here! We got a real problem on three!” a voice screamed down the basement steps.
The building was stone silent. Most of floor three was now a sprawling space devoid of walls, and the floor was a carpet of gray dust and bits of broken tile and insulation. Workers in jeans and boots stood quietly as the foreman stepped out of the stairwell, and they followed their boss like eager children as he made his way to room three-oh-six, the only room on the floor that was still remotely a room at all. A stench hit the foreman right as he crossed the threshold. He coughed, and quickly brought a bandana from his pocket to his face, covering his mouth and nose. “Christ, what’s that smell?” he asked. A young man in a hardhat and neon green T-shirt pointed to an open hole in the wall where this morning a heavy mahogany bookshelf had stood.
The foreman’s eyes peeled back. There, standing between two studs, was the last tenant. Wrapped in clear plastic, her desiccated face a smiling leather prune, eyelids glued shut over vacant sockets. “Mother of God,” the foreman said.
“How is your mother in law?” the teller asked.
“She’s good. Still very sharp,” Aram said with a delighted smile.
“Wonderful,” the teller said, sliding Mary’s ID back to Aram. “It’s a shame about her hip. I miss seeing her come in. She was always so full of spunk!”
Aram ran his hand over his black hair. “Yes, very much a shame. Stuck in bed is not so nice, but still, she have spunk.”
The teller laughed. “Well good!” she said, before counting out two thousand dollars in one hundred dollar bills.
Arman folded the money into his wallet, which he stuffed into the lapel pocket of his black leather coat. The teller was holding the social security check she just cashed. It was signed, as usual, in beautiful cursive.
“I just love the way Mary always signs her name with such a big, looping ‘M.’”