The Rent Man Cometh
Most folks don’t know the exact minute that life’s going to be over. I wasn’t any different. I had no idea the end was coming, so I didn’t realize when the landlord woke me up by beating on the front door of my apartment—a two-hundred-square-foot roach motel with a half bath, no phone, no cable, and no air conditioner—I only had sixty-one hours and forty-four minutes before my soul was taken away.
“Wake up if you know what’s good for you,” the landlord hollered in a thick peckerwood accent, repeatedly ringing the doorbell. “Rent’s due!”
“Mr. Payne?” I groaned, and rolled off the couch, which I’d collapsed into at three A.M.
I stumbled across the apartment, shaking my dreads out and wishing to hell I hadn’t slept in my work clothes, which were now more wrinkled than my Auntie Pearl’s rear end.
I opened the door a crack. Light flooded into my eyes, half-blinding me, and I blinked at Mr. Payne like a groggy Gila monster. “You know what time it is?”
“Yes ma’am, Miss Smoot, I sure do. It’s rent time.” He stuck a yellowed, liver-spotted hand inside and started groping around. “You’re five days late, Eunice, for the third month in a row. Ow!”
“Sorry,” I said, because I’d leaned on the door, pinching his wrist in the crack. But I didn’t give an inch.
Mr. Payne had pipe-cleaner wrists, a head shaped like a sapote fruit, and a long shank of hair he swirled over his bald spot like a hairy soft-serve ice cream. He was always getting in the tenants’ business, especially mine.
Speaking of business, it was time to go to work. I had just an hour till I was supposed to clock in.
“Rent!” Mr. Payne said, trying to yank his hand free.
“Uh.” Did he think bullying me was going to make a stack of Benjamins magically pop into my wallet?
“Uh. Uh. Uh,” he said, mocking me. “Cat got your tongue, young’un? Cat got your rent? You sure ain’t got it, I can tell that much.”
If I had the rent, I would’ve already paid him and gone back to bed. “Like I done told you—”
“Talk is cheap.”
So was he. “Like I done told you,” I repeated, “my boss, Vinnie, he don’t pay us but every two weeks, so I’ll get you the money tomorrow, a’ight?”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. That’s what you people always say.”
No, he didn’t. He did not just go there. “You people? You people? Now listen here, Mr. Payne.”
Then he said something about me being so cranky all the time and why couldn’t girls like me learn to go along to get along. Girls like what? I wanted to ask him. Poor girls who wear dreads and secondhand Baby Phats from the Goodwill? Mixed-race girls with hazel eyes and good hair, a pinch over five feet, with double-pierced lobes, who want something more out of life than somebody’s prejudice or pity? All my life, folks had been looking at me sideways, especially when I was with my mama. The Tejanos didn’t accept me because I was black. Black folks didn’t accept me because I was a Tejana. There was a nasty name both groups called girls like me—coyote. They could all kiss my ass because I didn’t need them to tell me who I was.
“Mr. Payne,” I said, “you best move your bony hand before you have to ‘go along’ without it.”
He yanked his arm out of the crack, and I took the chance to slam the door with all my weight—one hundred and two pounds sopping wet.
“Rent, Eunice. By five p.m. today. Or I’m starting eviction.”
Eviction? That sent a shiver down my spine. I couldn’t lose this apartment. It was the only thing between me and a cardboard box beneath an overpass on the Trans-Mountain Highway.
“What. Ever,” I said through the door, which was as thin as Mr. P’s comb-over.
“Tell that to the sheriff’s deputy,” he yelled, “after he chucks your belongings out on the street.” His slippers made a shuffling sound on the stoop, and I let out a nervous breath, thankful he was gone.
I lived in mortal fear of landlords. Before Papa C died, me and him moved to a different place every six months, each worse than the one before. This apartment was the crappiest place I had ever lived, but I had promised myself when I moved in, there wouldn’t be no eviction notices nailed to my door. Which gave me less than six hours to get the man his money.
I pinched my bottom lip. Other than selling my body, which ain’t ever going to happen, there was no way I’d ever come up with that much cash so fast.
I jumped back from the door, a hand over my thumping heart. He wasn’t serving me notice already, was he? Bug, girl, I told myself, you been way too jumpy lately. Best calm down. All he wants is the rent money, and you’re getting paid, right? “What you want now?” I said through the door.
“Get that junker of yours cleaned up pronto before I call a tow truck to haul it off as a public nuisance.”
My car? My classic 1958 Cadillac Biarritz? Wasn’t no tow truck ever touching it. Over my dead body. “What happened to my ride? And don’t you be calling it no junker.”
I swung the door open, slipped past Mr. Payne, and jogged around the corner of the building. My studio apartment was the last unit on a long row house. The building was yellow-brown brick with a flat roof and sagging awnings over the concrete stoops. There were little patches of dirt yards in front, and a crumbling sidewalk. My unit had a long driveway with a carport awning, which is where I had parked my ride last night at three A.M., right next to the No Parking sign.
I stopped mid-step, and my mouth dropped open. Somebody, some asshole, had egged my car.
Soul Enchilada. Copyright © by David Macinnis Gill . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill
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