“Mrs. Gleason! My favorite mediator!” The Griffin Apartments East landlord stood up from his desk and walked to her with a smile.
“Good morning, Tom. Again, you can call me Tamara. We’re on the same side,” she said, returning his smile.
“Thank you.” He led her out of the office and down a short hall. “I wasn’t sure you’d feel that way, knowing what’s coming: 1D and 1E.”
“Del Rey and Brown.” Grin in place, she closed her eyes and adjusted the strap of her leather satchel as they walked. “Again.”
“Here you go. Conference Room Two. Good luck,” he said, shaking his head. “Call me if you need anything.”
“You don’t mean that, but thanks.” She nodded, smiling. As he walked back to the office with a chuckle, Tamara stepped to the opened door of a small conference room. It was stark and utilitarian, furnished with only a short, rectangular table and six folding chairs. The overhead light was already on, its dim glow revealing walls of an undefinable color between cream and gray, and surprisingly scuffed given that none of the chairs rested against them. The floors were covered in an ancient Berber carpet, a darker color than the walls, with a mixing of slate and greige flecks. The sight washed over her like fast-moving water…fast, polluted water.
Monet would’ve approved of the carpet…if Monet’d been into dirty flooring, she thought as she stared into the room. The smell of stale cigarettes lapped at her, a little too strongly for the building’s tobacco-free status to have been enforced, and Tamara’s shoulders drooped under the soaking gloom.
No, stay positive. I set the tone for the meeting. She straightened and glanced at the wall opposite her. Windows. We’ll be here all day if I don’t lighten this atmosphere, at least a little. As she rushed to open the closest set of blinds, a small huff caught her attention: the widow from apartment 1D was sitting at the head of the table.
“Good morning, Mrs. del Rey.” Tamara smiled, though her teeth clenched as she turned to pull up the blinds. “I didn’t see you, at first. Let me get us some more light in here.”
“You, again?” Mrs. del Rey drew her lips into a tight, red-orange frown. “Are you the only mediator at the firm?”
This is how we’re starting, today. Awesome.
“Yes–me, again.” She forced her smile to stay put. “I’m not the only one, no, but this building is part of my caseload. There aren’t many complaints, here–you picked a good complex–so one mediator can usually handle all of them.”
“Hmph.” She crossed her arms, eyes following Tamara as she raised blinds on the room’s two remaining windows. “If there aren’t many complaints, why have I seen you so much?”
Hmmm. Why, indeed… Tamara fought to keep the words inside and her face toward the window as her eyebrows raised.
No. I can’t let her attitude get into mine. Tamara closed her eyes and took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. She has a complaint, and deserves to be heard as much as anyone. A little respect is usually what these boil down to, and that’s not too much to ask–from either of them.
As if on cue, the other party–Anthony Brown–stomped into the room. His mouth formed a hard line and daggers shot from his eyes toward Mrs. del Rey.
One eyebrow lifted in challenge, and her red-orange lips scrunched into a tight wad.
In answer, he jerked the chair from the other end of the table and dropped into it heavily, folding his arms.
“Good morning, Mr. Brown,” Tamara said lightly, determined to break the already-mounting tension.
“Good morning.” His face softened, for a moment, at Tamara. Then his attention, and open contempt, returned to Mrs. del Rey. “What’s she griping about this time?”
“You know good and well what this is about,” Mrs. del Rey hissed before Tamara could say anything. “You’ve been having wild parties, every week, and keeping me up! Me and everyone else near him,” she added, addressing Tamara with an emphatic nod.
“You old bat! You wouldn’t know a ‘wild party’ if it bit you on the butt!”
Tamara caught the inside of her cheek between her teeth to keep from laughing at the thought of Mr. Brown–all five-and-a-half feet, 120 lbs, and 70 years of him–attending a “wild party”…let alone throwing one. She took a manila folder from her satchel and laid it open on the table. The first of several pages inside it was a sheet with the header “Griffin Apartments East, Formal Complaint.” She laid it on one flap of the open folder, revealing another such form beneath it.
“It’s you,” Mr. Brown pointed a knobby finger at Mrs. del Rey as Tamara laid out the folder, “that disturbs everybody with that caterwauling you call singing! Sounds like she’s torturing an animal. Scares the whole building! That officer from upstairs came running down, one morning, thinking somebody was being killed! He knocked on my door, yelling about if something was wrong. I told him no such luck: it was her, next door, and unfortunately she was fine.” He glared at Mrs. del Rey from the corners of his eyes as he spoke to Tamara.
“He went to your apartment because that’s where the noise usually comes from!” Mrs. del Rey half-raised from her seat and leaned over the table, stabbing with her own finger toward Mr. Brown. The orange ends of her hair waved and bopped over the neon print scarf tied around her gray roots.
“Okay, okay,” Tamara said from the middle of the table, a hand out-stretched toward each of them, her palms down. “Let me make sure I understand what’s going on, then we’ll work on resolving the problems.
“Mrs. del Rey, your complaint is about Mr. Brown’s parties–”
“I don’t throw–” Mr. Brown raised his voice.
“I didn’t say you were. I’m just making sure I understand Mrs. del Rey’s claim.” She faced the older woman, again, whose tightly drawn lips deepened the wrinkles around her mouth. “You say Mr. Brown’s parties are disturbing you. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” She glared, arms crossed over her chest.
“And what is it about those parties…” She held up a finger to stop the protest Mr. Brown had opened his mouth to deliver. “What is it about the parties that disrupts you? Loud music? Loud talking? The time of night?”
Mrs. del Rey’s lips puckered further. She jittered in her seat, orange hair waving above her head and fire-engine red nails drumming on her arm.
“Well, they really aren’t that late. The loud talking and music is more the problem,” she answered, finally.
“What ‘loud talking’ and what ‘wild parties’?” Mr. Brown’s face had gone crimson.
“And Mr. Brown,” –Tamara raised her voice, caught herself, and immediately lowered it to a conversational level– “Mrs. del Rey’s singing disrupts you? Is that your grievance?” She frowned, and scanned one of the sheets from her folder.
“Yes. That, and she won’t shut up long enough to listen when somebody’s trying to explain things.” He slumped against the back of his chair. “But that’s not what’s on my complaint form. It’s about her stealing the newspapers from our whole hall, every Saturday!”
“Me?” Her mouth hung open and her eyebrows climbed over the bridge of her nose. “You filed a complaint about me?”
Tamara’s eyes widened at Mrs. del Rey’s apparent shock. She pushed back the long braids that had fallen over her shoulder as she schooled her expression to friendly neutrality.
“Yes,” Mr. Brown answered, in a subdued tone, his eyes fixed on the edge of the table in front of him.
The de-escalation Tamara was readying disintegrated at his reaction, and her eyes rounded, again. Are they really calming down on their own?
Mrs. del Rey’s stung look didn’t last long. She gripped the edge of the table and leaned toward Mr. Brown.
“I don’t ‘steal’ anything!” she said, her voice rising on each word. “Nobody reads those papers, and I turn them in for recycling!”
“Yeah,” Mr. Brown nodded as he scooted forward in his seat, “you turn ‘em in alright. And flirt with the recycling boy that comes to pick them up, every week.”
“I do not ‘flirt’ with him!” Her sour pucker turned into a frown and her eyes darted across the floor. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ha! I’ve seen you. You flash that big ol’ smile and go all soft-eyed when he talks to you. You were patting his hand once while you said who-knows-what to him,” Mr. Brown leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, again. “I even saw you try to lure him into your apartment with cookies, last week.”
Mrs. del Rey quietly picked at her fingernails, frown in place, and Mr. Brown stared decidedly away from her. Tamara took in each of their postures, and the unusual silence. Just as she opened her mouth, Mrs. del Rey spoke up.
“He’s my grandson,” she said, still looking at her fingernails. “I don’t ‘flirt’ with the recycling boy. That’s just the only time I get to see him.
“We lost his dad–my son–in a car accident. His mother,” she puckered at the sourness of the word, “doesn’t like me. So, she wouldn’t let me see him, after that. …I hadn’t seen him in ten years, when I noticed him collecting the recycling at the apartments.” A faint smile touched her mouth, but her eyes remained trained on her nails. “He looks just like his father, so I knew it had to be him. He’s seventeen, now, and works part-time while he’s finishing school.
“I do take the papers, and I did make him cookies.” Her eyes were glassy and defiant when she finally looked up. “And I’ll keep doing it, too.”
“Thank you for explaining, Mrs. del Rey,” Tamara said softly. The older woman’s head jerked in a nod, and Tamara saw her swipe at something wet on her cheek.
“Now Mr. Brown, Mrs. del Rey had a chance to explain herself regarding your complaint. Would you like to give us your side of the story, on her complaint?”
“I would.” He swallowed and cleared his throat before he continued, settling his brows firmly downward toward his nose. “I don’t throw ‘wild parties,’ and I don’t play loud music.”
“Ha!” Mrs. del Rey’s voice raised, again. “I’d like to know what you’re doing in there, then.” She turned to Tamara. “Sometimes I hear very excited, very feminine voices coming from in there. And sometimes it’s a man’s voice!”
“I’ll have you know it’s a woman and a man you hear in there. Every. Time.” Mr. Brown fired back.
Oh, this is waaay more than I need to know, Tamara thought, and absently straightened the papers from her folder.
“The woman is my daughter, and the man is my dad,” Mr. Brown sneered.
“Oh, please!” Mrs. del Rey’s frayed, orange hair bobbed as she yanked her arms into a fold, again. “If he’s your father, he’d have to be–”
“Ninety-two,” Mr. Brown finished for her. “He lives in the nursing home where my daughter works, and every Friday she brings him to my apartment. We watch a baseball game, then take him back. He likes to get out, a little, since he’s still able.”
“And I suppose your daughter and ninety-five year-old father like to listen to loud music, too?” Mrs. del Rey asked with sour lips.
“Ninety-two,” Mr. Brown said, eyes narrowed. “He can’t hear much, so I have to turn the volume way up for him. Your ‘music’ is probably commercials or whatever they play at the game.”
Tamara laced her fingers together on top of her folder, allowing each time to process these latest revelations.
“So, you’re not having parties or bringing women home every week?” Mrs. del Rey said–with a sideways glance, but minus the pucker–to Mr. Brown.
“No.” He huffed a self-deprecating laugh and flashed his eyes to Mrs. del Rey. “And you’re not flirting with the recycling boy?”
“Definitely not. Although if he weren’t my grandson he could do worse,” she said, sitting straight and patting the scarf tied around her hair.
“I guess he could,” Mr. Brown said as a slow smile spread across his face.
Mrs. del Rey jerked her attention to him. She answered with a grin and a raised eyebrow.
“Ahem,” Tamara cleared her throat, softly. “In light of what we’ve just learned, how about a compromise? Mrs. del Rey, as long as Mr. Brown’s visitors–and subsequent high volume levels from his apartment–are only once a week, are you willing to retract your complaint? Think about that for a minute.
“And Mr. Brown, if Mrs. del Rey agrees to ask before she takes your newspaper–you really should check with all the tenants whose papers you’ve been taking,” she added to Mrs. del Rey, “–are you willing to retract your complaint?”
Tamara looked from one to the other as they frowned, eyes focused away from each other.
Finally, Mr. Brown stared directly at Mrs. del Rey. She glanced up from across the table and met his gaze. He grinned. She blushed. They both turned to Tamara.
“Okay.” Mr. Brown spoke up first. “I take it back.”
“Me, too,” said Mrs. del Rey, looking at her fingernails. “I retract my complaint.” Her eyes slid to Mr. Brown and a coy smile replaced her pucker.
“Wonderful,” Tamara said, releasing a deep breath. “Then I have some forms for each of you to sign, and I believe our work here is done.”
When the paperwork was completed, Tamara stepped to the door and, smiling, shook the tenants’ hands, wishing them a good day as they left. Oh, my, she thought, as she watched them walk down the hall–together–Mrs. del Rey’s laughter echoing as she rubbed Mr. Brown’s arm. Tamara shook her head. Tom may kill me…
“Well, the building didn’t fall in, so I guess that means it went well?” Tom asked when Tamara knocked at his office door.
“It’ll stay up a little longer,” she winked.
“You’re good. Those two are something else.”
“Mostly, people just want someone to listen to them. The hardest part is getting them to be quiet long enough to hear.” She lowered her head a moment before she continued. “I think they’ll be okay now, though…maybe more than okay.”
Tom’s jovial face wilted. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes.” Tamara nodded, eyes wide. “They seemed to be warming up to each other pretty quickly by the time they left.”
“Here we go, again.” Tom sighed, scrubbing a hand down his face.
“At least they should get along for a little while. Right?”
“Sure.” Tom laughed. “See you next week.”
Tamara glanced in the direction of the gray-cream room and sighed.
“Yeah. See you next week.”