So are we willing to walk away then? he said.
I thought for a second, as if weighing the options. As if ‘yes’ and ‘no’ were on a scale, and to choose one would mean the certain plummet of the other. Decisive, I thought. This is what deciding feels like when you know you can never look back.
Yes, we are, I said. We are getting the deal we want. After all we’re the customers. We’re the one’s paying. Or we’re walking out. He’ll have to be ready to barter.
Good. John raised his arm for a sideways fist-bump.
I met him halfway but gave more of an entire forearm bump.
We opened and shut our doors at the same time.
The back door was cracked and we assumed it was for us. Our appointment with Justin was scheduled for eight, which was three minutes ago.
Inside there was only darkened office hallway. It smelled faintly of carpet cleaner and had pictures fixed to the wall every twenty feet. A man fishing in a rowboat, an old craftsman at dusk with a porch light, patrons walking on a bustling city strip.
Oddly quiet, he said. He walked ahead, his head darting left and right at each office door. He had energy.
Yeah, I almost whispered. I said it louder when I remembered there weren’t any other people around. What’s that sound?
We stopped. There was music. Smooth music, like jazz. We climbed a flight of stairs in the direction of the sound in the hope of finding Justin’s office.
As I walked I considered again the prospects of this event. This meeting.
This will be our home, I thought. We’ll settle in nicely. We’ll make friends with neighbors and get invited to huge dinners in their hillside bungalows. They’ll offer us beer and say, So guys, how do you like the area so far? and So what do you guys do? To that I’d answer that I’m a writer and he’s, well, I’ll let him tell you. At which point John would jump in and say whatever it would be that he felt like saying. He hated that question and tended to have a vague, automated response ready that was different every time. Eventually, after the neighbors would nod, feigning understanding, I’d say, Well, we’re here, and we’re doing what we love. Nothing else really matters, right? To which most would nod and one might raise his beer before talking about his own journey into the city. It was for a job, he’d say. But I always wondered if it wasn’t for something else too, because that’s how LA is: we come for the work, we stay for the mystery.
There was nobody. The halls were even darker and when we reached the end we realized we must have passed the room with the music.
There was an identical staircase that took us down and dropped us at the front door, which was locked.
We both shrugged and I checked my phone for the time.
A man rolled up in front in a truck.
He and I made eye contact and I wondered if he was Justin.
As he got out, though, I knew he wasn’t. He was wearing work pants and a matching work shirt. A uniform for a trucking company. Also, a black hoodie.
We pretended not to see each other until he got to the door and found it locked.
I was standing there, wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, staring at him. I pushed the door open.
Thanks, he said.
Directly inside the front door was the office for APMI, the management company Justin worked for.
I pulled out my phone and read his emails.
John was sitting on the steps outside the dark and locked APMI door.
The man was propped against a wall.
So you guys renting or buying, he said.
Renting, John said.
Meeting the guy here for the first time today, I said. I didn’t know why I told him that.
Oh that’s cool.
You? John said.
Yeah, actually renewing my lease.
I noticed the tattoos on his head and leading down his neck. His face was friendly and his tone indifferent. I wondered if he was ever really in a gang, and if so how long before he got out and started driving trucks and renting from APMI.
Cool, I said.
So, when you first signed, did you pay a non-refundable free? Four-hundred or so? John said.
Nope. Are you?
We thought it sounded weird, John said.
Sounds like you getting played.
Of course we were. Damn. Of course we were. Four-hundred square-feet in LA was tough to come by, especially for a reasonable price. We were quoted nine-hundred fifty a month, four-hundred fifty for a deposit, and four-hundred for an undisclosed, non-refundable fee. That made approximately nine-hundred eighty-three per month for a year. Not bad, but the question of what the fee was for, and why the guy standing in front of us didn’t have to pay it remained.
Rick, he said.
We all shook hands.
John asked about his work.
I don’t mind it, but a job is a job, right? He said.
I shrugged, thinking a job was so much more than that, but I didn’t say anything. Some people are content just making their wage and spending time with their family at night.
Rick told stories about being on the road delivering and all the crazy things that happened, Especially when you really need to be somewhere, he said.
At 8:40 we heard the door slam from the back of the building. Feet shuffled across the carpet and a young guy, about my age, came around the corner.
He was forty feet down the corridor when he called my name.
I rose, but he was still a good distance away.
He didn’t shake my hand. He didn’t look at John. When he noticed Rick, jingling his keys in his pocket, he said, Can I help you?
Rick looked at us confused and said, Yeah, you’re supposed to be open forty minutes ago.
Justin didn’t respond. He fit his key into the door and swung it open. Please, he said, indicating we should step in.
Yeah, well anyways, I’m just here to re-sign, Rick said. Another guy is supposed to help me.
Guys, please have a seat, he said.
There were credentials on the wall.
Sir, please also take a seat but you’ll have to wait. I don’t know who you talked to, but we’ll be with you soon.
Justin twirled around his desk, sat, stood, turned on his computer, and sat again.
I looked at John.
His arms were crossed and his eyes were fast upon Justin. He hadn’t taken a seat. His posture made Justin seem tiny and frantic.
I looked at Rick. His phone was at his face.
The process will only take five minutes guys, and then you’ll be on your way, Justin said.
I wanted to ask Justin why he was forty minutes late. I wanted to tell him that explaining a lease takes at least half an hour.
We’re wondering about the extra four-hundred dollars.
What’s it for? John says. He hadn’t moved.
It’s a fee we require all residents to pay. Non-refundable.
Well, John said. He pointed at Rick. Rick here never paid. So why do we have to?
Oh, Justin said. You didn’t?
Still staring at his phone, Rick shook his head no.
Well, probably a move-in special. We do those from time to time. Uh, sir, was it a move-in special?
Nope, Rick said.
It was a special guys, I’m sure of it, Justin said and sat back in his chair.
Four long seconds passed. John’s eyes still anchored.
Well, can we have a move-in special?
Look, I’m sorry man, but the price is fixed. It’s final. Nothing I can do. The fee is set by the boss and I can’t lift it.
For the first time since we’d entered the room John looked at me. Then he looked at the ceiling. Then he looked at Justin again.
Oh, he said.
Yeah, Justin said quickly.
I found myself risen and at Justin’s desk next to John. I didn’t look him in the eye but wondered if he was bluffing.
Show us a piece of paper, John said. Show us something, anything that says we have to pay the four-hundred.
There isn’t anything. It’s just a rule, man.
I saw our keys on his desk. They were in a new envelope. Unsealed.
Okay, John said. No deal then.
Justin was logging onto his computer. He picked up a tray of paper, checked for something underneath it, and set it down. His eyes were all across his desk. Alright, he said. I will just take care of your paperwork and you’ll be on your way.
Take care of our paperwork.
Maybe you didn’t hear me, John said.
I looked at John.
I said no deal, Justin. That means rip it up.
He seemed to swallow. Okay, he said. The faintest tremble.
I wanted Justin to see what was going on. That we were there to rent, not to walk away empty-handed. I wanted him just to explain. A part of me broke and I wanted to tell him it was fine.
John turned to leave.
Okay guys, well. I guess, well, have a nice day then.
I waited. I wanted him to redeem himself. I believed waiting there for a moment longer would change things. I wanted to tell him to have a nice day too, but with keys in my hand, because outside of this situation I would have wanted him to have a nice day.
He met my eyes and seemed to say he didn’t know what else to do.
I said nothing. I nodded and walked out behind John.
He pushed the building door open and we walked out onto the street. He turned and gave me a smile.
I patted the envelope of cash in my pocket and shrugged.