Roommate Connection

Sean Labbe

The floor of the upstairs bedroom was strewn with brown cardboard boxes. Dirty strips of yellow masking tape with hairballs stuck to the adhesive dangled off of them and crumpled-up wads of old newspapers spilled out of them and onto the floor. There was dust all over the place and sweeping out the room he raised a small swirling cloud of it like a little twister. He mopped the floor, taking off his shoes and socks first, and then opened the window once he was finished and walked out and sat down in the hall. He picked his toes for a minute and then ran his hands over the soles of his feet before slipping his shoes and socks back on and going out to the car again. He brought in the last of the odds and ends---notebooks, albums, cassettes, t-shirts, clean and dirty linen and a calender of Ansel Adams photographs from the year before---and then leaned against the wall and wondered why he had bothered to mop in the first place because he was only going to have to do it all over again anyway. He took out and flipped open the calendar and leafed through the shots of Yosemite until he got to the picture of Daly City. He looked at the wall and he looked at the picture: it sure would make a cool poster there.

Scotty was moving in at last, into the house he was to share with Eric and Gael. They were late. It was noon now and they had all agreed to meet at eleven-thirty to help each other clean the house and unload boxes. But Scotty had gotten antsy just waiting and had started without them. There was no time to lose: only another week and the fall semester would begin. Scotty had gone to West Valley Community College (that was where he had first met Eric) and had transferred up to State. He knew he was going to work hard: this was a real four-year university. And not only was he going to have a lot of schoolwork but he was strapped as far as cash went. It would be tight but just for a couple weeks until his grants came through and Eric paid him back. Then he could get his books.

It was good to know a guy like Eric. You just knew he was going to go far. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it and if you listened to him long enough you would want it too. He liked his beer and even though he did not think of himself as a smoker he always had a cigarette tucked behind his ear like a pencil. He had a way too when drinking of toasting where he tucked his head into his chest and raised his glass high above his head in just such a way that it splashed everyone but himself.

Scotty and Eric had run into each other again at State where Scotty had been looking at the listings of rentals. Eric walked by and did a doubletake and slapped Scotty on the back: same old Eric, same old Scotty. Eric asked what was up and Scotty said:

---Looking for a place. You know, a studio, or a one-bedroom, maybe.


---Why Hmm?

---It's just that, well, how much do you want to pay?

---I don't know: three-fifty, I hope.

---Hmm. What are you doing now?


---Come on. Let's go for a ride. We can look around.

The two walked across the quad which, although it was still three weeks until classes commenced, was full of students hurrying from here to there, buying books, milling about and talking to one another. Eric and Scotty made their way along 19th Avenue to the lot at Petrini's supermarket where Eric had parked his Volkswagen bus. You could get a ticket for parking there if you were not a customer but Eric always got away with it. They piled into the bus and Eric drove off. He painted houses and the back of the bus was filled with buckets and trays, brushes, rollers and cans of paint, which all rattled and knocked together as they made their way down bumpy Ocean Avenue.

Pulling into the parking lot of a paint store in the Mission Eric asked Scotty where he wanted to live.

---Downtown, maybe, or SoMa.

---That's a serious commute you're talking.

Eric set the emergency brake and they got out.

---Don't you want to be closer to school? You know, the parties. Hey wait, hold on a minute! I have an idea.

Eric explained the situation as they walked through the aisles of the store. He and Gael were living in a cramped one-bedroom in the Inner Sunset that cost six-fifty a month. It was nothing special. All one-bedrooms cost that much at least. Eric handed Scotty a can of paint thinner for emphasis:

---At least, man, at least!

The checkout clerk rang up Eric's purchases. He paid and Scotty helped him carry it all out to the bus. Driving along some backstreets Eric continued. Cheap studios were as a rule no bigger than closets (you had to look out for the telltale cozy that the owners liked to put in the newspapers ads) and were only to be found in real greasy parts of town like the Tenderloin. Eric knew: he had seen them, he had painted them. It would be far from campus and dangerous to boot. Eric jammed into third gear:

---You'd have to walk that walk and talk that talk. You'd hate it. You need calm, man, to study. State isn't like West Valley, you know.

Eric drove along Laguna Honda. He and Gael had been thinking of moving themselves. They had talked about it with a couple of friends but their lease was not up for a few months so they were not ready now. But what about this? Scotty was looking for a place. Eric and Gael wanted to move. They were all doing the same thing, studying, going to school; why not share a place? Not an apartment, not a flat, but a house, a real house. It would be the kind of place you would want to come home to, to bring someone to. There would be lots of room. And since nobody would be living above or below, you could play your music really loud, have parties and not worry about anyone complaining about the racket. And to top it all off you would save on rent: at least fifty bucks a month. And fifty bucks sure bought a lot of beer.

---No doubt! Scotty said.

What Eric said made good sense. It was true that Scotty had been getting a little worried about the whole thing. Nothing seemed to be going his way and it had started to feel all wrong. He had been making the drive up to the city from San Jose where he lived with his mother. She was no help. She had no money and knew nobody so he signed up at a rental agency on Lombard Street. That cost him fifty bucks right off the bat. Granted, twenty-five was refundable if he found a place some other way. All he had to do was show a rental agreement or a lease. If the place was not on the rental agency's list the refund was all his. He looked in the papers and went to open houses and took down numbers. Now that he thought about it Scotty realized that what Eric had been saying was absolutely true: all the studios, flats, apartments and rooms he had seen had been horrible: dark and dank, smelling either of fish or garbage or roach killer or all three mixed together. Scotty did not want to live anyplace like that. Eric could count him in. Eric said:

---Now you're talking, man. Now you're talking. Gael'll be up for it, I'm sure. Just wait until you meet her.

Eric downshifted and wheeled into the parking lot of his apartment building. They took the stark lit elevator up to the third floor and Scotty helped Eric cart up the painting supplies. Eric set down what he was carrying and unlocked the door and walked in. Scotty walked behind him and left what he had in the entryway. An agreeable smell of spaghetti sauce simmering hung in the air: oregano, pepper, onion, tomatoes. Eric came up behind Gael and hugged and kissed her. Scotty went back and got the rest of the supplies and set them down in the entryway. Eric introduced him to Gael:



---That smells pretty good, Scotty said, sniffing. Did you make it yourself?

---No, it's store-bought.

Gael invited Scotty to eat with them. She started talking about how she had tried to live in New York and then in Los Angeles. Both were all wrong for her. Fate was trying to tell her something. She came to the city and that was it: fate, karma, kismet, whatever. Scotty nodded. Gael went on. You did not choose the city; it chose you. This was meant to be her home and she knew it and would never leave. Did Scotty feel that way? He did. Soon they were all formulating a plan. It was going to be a little tricky because Eric and Gael had told their landlord they would stay on for another six months.

---Nothing binding, though, Eric added.

Eric ran out and bought a couple six-packs and Scotty offered Eric some money which he at first refused. A while later, empty beer cans lining the countertop, they all three argued and debated about political issues, military affairs and the government. Governor Deukmejian was cutting back on student grants. It was a conspiracy: they wanted to keep young people stupid so they would not be able to make informed choices. The same old status quo wrinkly-neck politicians would stay in power and cut back and cut back and soon nobody but rich kids would be able to go to college. They could not let that happen.

It grew late and Eric nodded in his chair. Gael woke him and he went off to bed. Scotty crashed on the sofa. They agreed the next morning over coffee and poppyseed muffins to hook up the next Saturday and start looking. Eric had a bad hangover and asked if it was not too much trouble could Scotty just take the bus back to State. Gael walked him out to the street, kissed him on the cheek and said:

---See you on Saturday.

---Yeah, see you on Saturday.

Saturday came. It was a sunny day and Scotty headed up to the city early. He stopped by the rental agency and asked for a list of houses. The woman at the agency thought it was a weird thing to ask for and she acted all put out. But he got the list anyway and tooled out to Eric and Gael's apartment building. After coffee they piled into Scotty's car. Eric said he had spilled paint thinner in the bus and it stank. Gael brought the Chronicle and folded it over to the classifieds: the houses she had called to arrange a meeting for were circled in bright red ink.

They looked first at the houses on Scotty's list from the agency. They went to one after another but all the houses were as bad as the studios, flats, apartments and rooms Scotty had gone to before. Many were not even houses: they were either flats or worse, converted garages. They were ugly too: red carpets, paper windowshades, dirty walls or shabby peeling wallpaper. None was anywhere even remotely cool; they were all in places like Ingleside and Bayview. Eric made jokes:

---Esthetically impoverished.

---At least it'd be easy to buy crack.

---I suppose after a while you could get used to the sound of gunfire.

They went by a few houses from the classifieds. At most nobody was even there to show them the interior and none of the rest really grabbed them. Most of them cost about nine-hundred a month; they would probably have to pay more to get something decent. There was no need to rush things. It was only the first day and it took patience to find a good place. Scotty stopped for gas. They looked through the ads again and got into the twelve-hundred dollar range before they hit on one that sounded all right.

The house was in the Outer Sunset at Quintara and 42nd. It took a long time to get out there because the area was residential and there seemed to be a stop sign at every intersection. It was surreal, just like the photo of Daly City Scotty had on his Ansel Adams calendar. The houses ran in the same long rows and had the same small lawn cut in half by the same straight path leading up to the same metal gate. The streets themselves were deserted, lined by walls and wooden fences stretching away into the distance towards the ocean.

As they counted off the address numbers and came up to where the house was supposed to be Eric pointed ahead and said:

---Will you get a load of that?

They looked. It was a Spanish-style, two-story house, cream color, with a red tile roof. There was a red stained wooden fence around it and Scotty stopped the car alongside it and they all got out. Some sort of coat of arms, swords crossed in a field of blue, was embedded in the sheetrock exterior. Gael asked:

---What do you think?

---It's kind of expensive, Scotty said.

---Yeah, Eric said, but we'll never find anything as good as this. I mean, just look at it. It's got a lawn, for Pete's sake.

---Well, yeah, but maybe it's a total dump inside.

---You haven't even seen it yet.

---I'm just saying...

Gael broke in:

---All right, all right, let's call the guy, take a look. We don't have to take it if we don't want to.

Scotty drove around and drove around: either every payphone was broken or had somebody on it. They found one. Eric dialed the number and a gruff voice answered. They talked. Eric hung up. The guy had to drive up from San Bruno and would be at the house in forty-five minutes.

They drove around, circling the area, and looked for more FOR RENT signs. When they got back to the house the man was waiting outside. He had a bald head and a potbelly and was leaning against a car and smoking a cigarette. He introduced himself as Doug MacLachlan and he shook hands all around. He offered everyone a cigarette and Eric took one. Mr MacLachlan lit it for him and ushered them in through the gate. The lawn rose gently to the house and was parted by a stone path that wound up to the front steps in a lazy curve. Weeds poked up along on both sides and bristled, here and there, in little clumps that looked like tumbleweeds. Mr MacLachlan was talking:

---A yard like this takes a lot of upkeep. But you won't find another like it anywhere in the city. Just look at it. You know, all this was sand dune fifty years ago. But it's okay in an earthquake: the house just rolls with it.

They climbed the front steps and Mr MacLachlan unlocked the front door on which was a doorknocker in the shape of a bagpipe player in a kilt and stockings and a tall Black Watch hat. Scotty stared at it: what kind of schizoid put a Scottish doorknocker and a coat of arms on a Spanish-looking house? What was he doing, going for a new style: Scottish hacienda? Mr MacLachlan stopped and picked at the doorknocker with his thumb.

---Put this on myself. You see I used to live here. Needs to be brushed. Ocean air makes it turn green. Salt, you know.

Question answered, Scotty thought, and proceeded inside, where his jaw nearly dropped to the floor. The house was humungous, with a gigantic kitchen, acres of counter space, and an attached dining room that seemed to stretch off into infinity. There were enough cupboards for a small army and a walk-in pantry besides. Without lingering, they turned back and went into the living room. Bookshelves were built into the wall, wooden shutters covered the windows and a fireplace sat enclosed by a heavy metal screen.

---Does this work? Gael gasped, pointing at it.

---It sure does.

Mr MacLachlan gazed off for a moment and then said:

---It's hard to find good tenants for a place like this. They don't appreciate it. They let it go. Look at these nice hardwood floors. Russians and Chinese always want to put carpet down.

Mr MacLachlan lowered his head and began to shake it.

They went upstairs to where the three bedrooms were and stopped in the short hall between them: the large one took up the whole east side and the medium one and the small one took up the west. The small one was rather small but it had a bathroom going for it. Eric nodded and, pointing at the large bedroom, said:

---This one could be ours. Scotty, you could take the middle one.

---We could use the small one as a guest room.

---And Scotty, this could be your bathroom and we could use the one downstairs for ourselves.

Mr MacLachlan looked at the three of them and said:

---You could always take on another roommate if you wanted. Just check with me first.

---We might just do that.

It was settled: Eric and Gael would take the large bedroom and Scotty the medium. They could wait and see about another roommate. In the meantime they could use the small bedroom as a workroom. Eric could put his desk in there and then that would free up some space in the bedroom.

Mr MacLachlan handed them the application forms and offered another cigarette to Eric; Gael protested. Scotty filled out the forms: he was the only one with a credit card. It was only a student Visa with a credit line of just five-hundred dollars. It was maxed out but he always paid the bill on time so it was better than nothing.

Mr MacLachlan went over the conditions. There would be a one-year lease. He did not like looking for new tenants and did not want the place to stand empty: he was getting ruined paying the taxes on it. The rent was twelve-hundred a month. The move-in would be first and last plus a six-hundred dollar security deposit. Under his breath Eric asked Scotty:

---Could you cover part of Gael's and my share? Just until we get our deposit back from the old place. Like, about a grand?

Scotty did a quick mental figuring. He squinted his eyes and his lips moved silently as he counted to himself. After a few moments he said:


---It'll be just for a week or two. You know, until we get our deposit back from the old place.

Mr MacLachlan checked over the completed form and said:

---Okay. I'll check your refs. I'll get back to you in a few days. Maybe by Wednesday.

Wednesday came and late in the day Mr MacLachlan telephoned. Everything had checked out. He would give them a shot. When could they meet him to sign the lease?

It was almost two o'clock now and still there was no sign of Eric and Gael. The car was empty now and Scotty was downstairs sweeping out the living room. He set up his stereo system there instead of in his room: it would not be cool to seem stingy about it. Eric and Gael had a little boombox but it was a piece of crap. They did have a television and a video. Scotty measured off the room with his hands. There was no reason why they could not connect their systems and have a real monster entertainment center. They were going to be living together; they, and he too, would have to learn to share. He tuned in an indie station and went out for the last thing: his lumpy heavy double-sized mattress. He unstrapped it from the roof of the car and humped it up the stairs, sometimes backpedaling a bit, until finally he got the better of the stairs and arrived at the top. He flopped the mattress down on the floor, dug around for his two pillows and tossed them onto the mattress. Then he lay down hard and his head forced some feathers out through the seams of the pillows. He was just about to doze off when he heard a car horn honking. He rolled over and glanced at his watch: it was two-thirty. The horn honked again. He got up, gagged when he caught a whiff of his sweaty shirt, threw another one on and then made his way down the stairs and outside. Eric and Gael were walking up the path.

---Hey, sorry we're late. Gael's going to get some beer. Why don't you kick in a few bucks?

Scotty dug absently in his pocket and handed some dollar bills over to Eric who gave them to Gael.

---Some Coors, okay?

---You know I don't like them: they're not politically correct.

Eric rolled his eyes.

---Okay, then get some Weinhards. Come on, Scotty, we've got work to do. I invited some friends over later. A little housewarming party. Cool, huh?

He took out a box and handed it to Scotty and said:

---Careful, it's heavy.

On the doorstep Scotty braced the box against the frame of the door with his knee and opened the door and walked in. Eric, behind him, said:

---Hey, you know you've got some feathers in your hair?

Scotty tried to shake them out then ruffled his hair with his hand.

---Careful, man, careful. Don't drop it.

They carried the boxes upstairs and set them down in the large bedroom.

---Ready? Okay! Let's go! Eric said, clapping his hands together.

They had the van just about unloaded when Gael got back from the beer run and they squatted on the floor in the living room, laughing, kicked back, and having a good time. Eric's friends were on their way with brewskies aplenty. Scotty's stereo was booming, the tunes cranked up loud like hell. Scotty was having himself a good old time too: the beer was good. He sat back and looked around the room. The house was perfect. It had taken a lot of searching to find it and a lot of work to get into it but now their worries were over. He would get the twenty-five bucks back from the rental agency on Monday and that would tide him over for the time being. He would have to stay in for a while but that was okay because he had his room just the way he wanted it. He had tacked up the calendar picture of Daly City at the foot of his bed: it really did make a cool poster. Now it was time to settle in, kick back and relax. He was home, moved-in at last, where he was meant to be, and he was not going to be leaving any time soon, that was for sure. Not if he had anything to do with it.