A Man Named Gill

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Set your story during a drought.... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction Funny

The landlord hesitated a split second before shoving the ancient, grimy key for unit 8 into my palm. I debated launching into my new apartment before the impish man could spark another 15-minute history lesson about the surrounding Santa Monica landscape, but feigning politeness, I mustered, “Anything else? I mean, besides what you said about the front gate and the trash days and turning the lock clockwise?”

As if I had pried a great and heavy burden from his lips, he wheezed emphatically, “Try not to mind Gill, okay?” And then, in case Gill might be listening, he darted his eyes this way and that. Satisfied his audience was only a group of sad, drooping succulents and me, he added: “He’s the resident maintenance guy. Been around since my dad bought the place. He’s just a little...different.”

I shrugged, not exactly surprised. Any person forking $2,500 a month for a studio space in a dilapidated building with no bragging rights beyond a sprawling and invasive bougainvillea was either lacking better options or “different.” This morning I had already encountered an 80-something-year-old neighbor sneering suspiciously from behind torn curtains. Not five minutes later, on the opposite end, a man whose age was impossible to calculate hopped from mismatched sock to mismatched sock and yelled, “try the banana cream pie!”

Recognizing my apathy on the topic, the landlord insisted, “he’s really different. You might get a little frustrated. Just ignore him. He’s over in unit 6.”

I cast a glance over at the door of unit 6 and saw it was plastered with surf stickers dating back to the early 60s. The small hallway connecting the units was congested in Gill’s area with broken bits of shells and boogie boards jutting out in incalculable angles at unsuspecting knees. A single bulb on a string of Christmas lights flickered around the head of a faded plastic orca. Different might be a nice word for him, I thought.

“Sure, George,” I assured the landlord. “Nothing wrong with being a little different.”

My landlord didn’t look convinced.

***

California was an exceptionally parched state, quite opposite the lush, evergreen state of Florida from which I had uprooted life to trail my government-employed husband. Smooshed against a moody and clogged road, our apartment at least afforded us a sliver-like view of the Pacific Ocean. But most days, an obnoxious cloud of dust twisted in all directions and obscured visibility entirely. If I left the doors open longer than a minute, a fine layer of dirt settled on every angle of the studio. Pens. Notebooks. Teacups. If I dropped a roll of toilet paper, dust would explode from the roll. My dog Suki was constantly sneezing to the point I questioned my vet in concern. “It’s just all the dust from the drought,” the vet assured me as Suki nearly hewed up a lung from her nostrils.

Although the ocean breeze chased the oppressive summer heat into downtown Los Angeles, the omnipresent dryness lingered. The plants twisted toward dripping air conditioners. The dogs lapped at the polluted puddles of irrigation runoff. Even the ground squirrels gained fame in the parks for “splooting,” splaying out on their bellies on cool surfaces so that they looked like living roadkill speckling soccer fields and picnic tables.

Understandably, the local government decided to crack down on irresponsible water wasters, highlighting a fancy “phase 2” of water conservation, which mostly everyone took seriously. Everyone except for Gill. Gill, our six-foot-three maintenance man who began every morning, crouched on the sidewalk with a hose, spraying in all directions except that of the plants. For a few weeks, I observed this behavior from my balcony. I watched him attach the hose and spray the curb, the sidewalk, the public bus stop. He’d douse the storefront windows across the street with water. He’d aim a steady stream of water into the small sewers along the street. He’d even take a pass at a few thirsty birds, assaulting them midair and cackling as they flitted away in a panic.

As a grad student slaving over a thesis from the confines of my claustrophobic living space, I found Gill a subject of immense irritation. Not only did he lecture anyone and everyone crossing his path about this or that, but he proved utterly incapable of performing maintenance duties in general. He’d grumble about lightbulbs that didn’t work and washing machines that leaked water (citing the “drought” and how modern technology was constantly wasting natural resources). He’d spend an endless amount of time hacking at the parched limbs of the bougainvillea, which had, by some miracle, managed to bloom in the face of drought and Gill’s unforgiving shears. And every day, like clockwork, Gill would retreat to his dingy and cramped apartment upon completing a task to watch home videos of a time when “things were just easier.”

On any given Monday, Gill will begin his day by spraying the public bus bench, forcing whatever poor Hispanic worker waiting an hour for the bus to stand while doing so. By Tuesday, Gill has focused efforts on hosing the curbs and sidewalks in front of our apartment building. He usually pauses to inspect the wilted palm by the front entrance and will mumble, “can’t figure this damn this out,” before rolling up the hose and walking back inside. Wednesday usually involves a kerfuffle based around the pool’s water level, which like any body of water during a drought, is particularly sensitive to evaporation. He will fuss and blame the residential dog owners, whom he’s convinced fill up their pets’ water bowls because they’re “too cheap to use the tap water.” The potted succulents suffer the most on Thursday, receiving the majority of Gill’s nurturing efforts, much to the dismay of the palms and hibiscus. By the time Friday rolls around, Gill culminates his week of exertions by repeating the daily events over a single, four-hour period, flaunting his most productive self. The bus stop, sidewalk, and curbs will be doused in water. The succulents will be sufficiently drowned again. The pool will be filled to the brim. And to celebrate this final burst of motivation, Gill will displace at least six inches of the pool’s water by tying himself to the steps and sloppily mimicking an Olympic freestyle swimmer.

***

Six months into this observation period — during which Kim Kardashian was publicly criticized for over-zealously watering the lawn of her mansion property — Gill continued to defy law and order without penalty. As though LA couldn’t get any drier, half a year without a single drop of water had

turned the entire area into a dust bowl. I became convinced the bougainvillea bloomed only in defiance to Gill’s presence (and perhaps due to a strong diet of urine from passing dogs and homeless men). Ever diligent, Gill fended the sidewalk from vomit piles and ill-placed dog poops. He waged war with Covid-19 germs at the bus stop. He kept our complex pool a tiny oasis of sapphire, even as the cold months crept in and pool parties became a thing of the past.

But one day, I caught Gill fuming over a piece of paper he’d found wedged in his door.

“Can you believe this?” he fumed, waving the paper around erratically. “They’re firing me!”

Again, I found myself lacking an element of shock. Still, I had grown to find Gill endearing to the most frustrating degree, and I didn’t want him to lose his job. My silent presence prompted an onslaught of mumbles and “Gill-isms” (...back in my day...it’s never been the same...all this technology...online rent payments...) And then Gill, in all of his six-foot-three wonder, sank defeatedly onto a filthy cooler and sighed the sigh of a ghost trapped in the wrong dimension.

“Do ya know how I got this job?” he said, tracing a finger along a dust-blanketed tequila bottle. “Back in ‘69 I was real low on my luck. Got married and divorced in three months. Woman drove me to the drink and I got shit-faced every night. One morning I woke up and thought I needed to get myself together but I didn’t have nothin. My clothes were on my back. My wallet was empty. So I stumbled up this damn street, jus’ thinkin.”

I watched, horrified, as a large, translucent spider scurried over his left foot.

“Anyway, I walked up and down this damn street for so long I noticed somethin. So many drunks had coughed up on this sidewalk and homeless hippies pissin’ all over the place. Who the hell would walk on these sidewalks barefoot? So I went to every damn storefront and apartment complex, and I asked them if I could clean their sidewalks. All of ‘em turned me away. Except for ol’ man Johnson who owned this dump. I dunno if it was pity or amusement, but he set me to cleanin’ the walkways and fillin’ the pool and

waterin’ them damn potted plants. I must’ve done a good job because he gave me twenty bucks and told me to come back the next day and the day after that.”

Something akin to empathy swelled at the back of my throat and stung my eyes. Gill’s diligent daily routine suddenly made sense, not as efforts to confound and infuriate the complex’s residents but as tedious and painstaking versions of what used to be Gill’s sole purpose in life. For every dingy stain on the concrete and hot summer day disparaging the pool levels, Gill would show up and fix the problem. But his decades of routine had robbed him of any other skills, and now, like all the objects littering his front doorstep, he was expendable.

***

The drought remained, but Gill left. He took with him a lifetime of strange and broken memorabilia. No one bid him goodbye. The new property managers fluttered in and uprooted the bougainvillea, filled the pool, and disassembled the hose connections around the building. The wilted succulents were discarded and replaced with fancy bushes with names no one could pronounce. Even Gill’s door, a testament to decades of sticker collection and era changes, was scraped clean and painted fresh.

At face value, the building had improved in appearance and functionality. The washing machines no longer leaked, and the lightbulbs always worked. Residents paid rent online instead of piling handwritten cheques into Gill’s mailbox to hand-deliver to the landlord. And, of course, water was finally conserved — used when necessary, preserved otherwise. Still, the building seemed emptier without its residential ghost.

While I never saw Gill before he left, presumably to try his luck at other storefronts and apartment complexes, he left a box on my doormat. Inside there were numerous glass coca-cola bottles dating back as far as coca-cola bottles could date. Scribbled on the outside of the box, Gill had written a note:

“Always keep glass bottles on the porch to catch the rain. Ya never know when you might need the water.” 

August 25, 2022 04:29

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