Wayne Michael DeHart (May, 2019)
Second floor. Old guy. Moved in about two months ago. Keeps to himself. Aloof and distant.
Grunts when someone says hello if they cross paths when he goes downstairs for his mail or takes his trash out to the dumpster. Slight of build, appears pale and gaunt, thick glasses, long hair but clean-shaven. Wears a belt with a large brass buckle that reads, “GUS”. Hardly a sound is heard from behind his closed door, day or night, or so his nearest neighbors say. Has a little blue Hyundai, but seldom does it ever move from its spot at the far end of the parking lot. When he does leave, it‘s either to buy groceries on a weekday (which was evident) or visit the two remaining loves of his life on a 100-mile round-trip Sunday drive (which was not evident).
The weathered building houses 18 apartments spread over three floors, with 27 tenants. No resident manager, no amenities, no lease, no security deposit, no pets allowed. Just the quiet privacy he wanted.
“What do you suppose he does in there all day?”, growled Jen, the big-busted blonde cougar in Apt. 9. “Something odd about him; I’ve passed by him a few times and he never even looks down at these puppies. You look at them, don’t you Chris?” Chris smiled and nodded, then playfully stared at her bountiful cleavage until she said, “Okay, tiger, that’s enough.” He laughed out loud, reached for his truck keys and headed out to his night job. By now, this repartee had become somewhat of a routine ritual between the two but for him at least, it never got old. “That haggard old codger must be blind,” he would shake his head and tell himself, “or darn close to it.”
“Lew Louis” reads the name on the mailbox insert. In a hallway gaggle one Saturday morning near the mailboxes on the first floor, someone speculated his full name must be “Lewis Louis” and another added, “Even better, probably Lewis L. Louis, L for Little, and divorced from Lois Louis.“ The half-dozen tenants guffawed loudly when another chimed in with, “Loser Lewis L. Louis” and on and on it went.
That is, until someone noticed the pair of denim-clad legs visible on the staircase behind them. The legs were not moving. An eerie quiet set in. The tenants stared at the legs and the legs seemed like they were staring back. To the arriving mail carrier, it looked like a moment frozen in time, a still photograph. “Hey folks”, he greeted them but all eyes remained fixed and focused on the staircase legs, even as someone mumbled back a muted greeting to the carrier, who had already begun dropping mail into the boxes.
Then, suddenly, a voice boomed from the stairs. “Anything for Little Loser Louis today?”
One could almost hear the unspoken, collective “Oh, crap” from the gagglers. The mailman sensed something was going on even before the question was asked and one look at the expressions on the faces in front of him when the question was posed led him to hastily finish his work with an “I’m outta here” urgency.
Convinced more than ever that the stationary legs belonged to the new tenant, one of the men meekly got out the words, “Just kidding, Mr. Louis. Just kidding. We joke about everyone who moves in here. Nothing personal. No offense intended. Okay?” The newcomer was not imposing physically, to be sure, but no one seemed to want to cross him. He had that look in his eye, that chip on his shoulder, that hair too long for a man of his age. Might go off on them at any time. Might lose it. They anxiously awaited a response of some kind, but only an unsettling silence ensued.
It was unclear why they didn’t quickly scatter before he resumed his trek down the stairs. Surely he hadn’t recognized their voices, having up till now only seen them nod or heard them mutter an occasional “Hi” or “How’s it going?” in passing. They had to realize they were likely unidentifiable and thus held plausible deniability for the boorish banter. Perhaps they were afraid to move, frozen in fear that a now-unhinged Lewis “Little Loser” Louis would take three steps down, come into full view and pull a bazooka from his pants and go postal on them on his way to the mailbox. The silence was suffocating, but for whatever reason, they simply awaited their respective fates in place, hearts pounding, muscles twitching.
Then, to their surprise and relief, the legs did an about-face and returned back up the stairs, mail run abandoned. In the quiet, they heard a door open and quickly close. “Damn you, Ed, why did you have to start that stuff? Now everyone in the building could be in danger if he pops his cork.” “You can tell there’s something just not right about that guy. You watch the news, anything can happen these days, especially with those silent, loner types.” “Me?”, says Ed, “You were the one that added the ‘Loser’ part, and it sounded like that’s what got him upset. We have to tell the rest of the tenants about this, so they can make sure their guard is up and their doors stay locked. Deadbolt ’em even better. Always use their peepholes. And maybe from now on we should wait for the mail inside our own places instead of hanging out in the hallway like this. At least until he moves on and it’s safe again.” Everyone nodded and quietly went about their business.
Several days passed. No one saw or heard Lew Louis. And by now all the tenants knew about the “incident” and were watching for him like hawks on ham. Until the following Sunday morning, that is, when he went downstairs and out to his Hyundai and drove away. Within minutes, word spread around the building that he was on the move.
“Don’t want him ON the move, just want him TO move” said Jen. “Creepy old coot, doesn’t wanna even look at these, ya know? Not normal for a man. Chris says so too.”
In the early afternoon, the blue Hyundai returned to its parking spot. Lew Louis got out, walked around to the passenger side, and opened the door. A young girl of maybe seven or eight got out. He took her by the hand and led her up to his apartment. A couple of people saw that, and quickly everyone present in the building had been alerted. “The old pervert’s got a little girl up there. We’ve got to do something. Call 911.” “Yea, we’ll do that but what might happen before they get here? The guys have to band together and knock on his door and see if the poor girl is okay. Even if he doesn’t answer, at least he’ll know we’re onto him, and he’ll have to behave himself.” All agreed it was a good plan.
Jen joined six of the men and they knocked long and hard on the door of Apt. 12. They banged and banged, and kept on banging, all the while spouting unintelligible warnings and threats, followed by a simple “Open the door, let her go.” The girl’s voice could clearly be heard, sounding anxious and worried. “Grampa Gus, why are those people trying to break down your door! What do they want? What will they do?” She then shouted, not at the unsteady old man in front of her, but at those on the other side of the door. “Go away, go away, you’re upsetting him, you’re scaring him.”
It was a “WTF” moment for the mob in the hallway. Was the girl confused? Was he telling her what to say under threat of hurting her? And what had she called him? Something wasn’t right.
The 911 call had already been made and the police were on their way so the tenants eventually stopped pounding and yelling and just listened quietly, ears pressed up against the door. After a short while, they heard sobbing sounds from the girl and nothing else. No words, no ruckus. The men and Jen started to bicker among themselves.
“Let’s kick in the door.” “No, let’s wait on the cops, he could have a gun pointed at the door, or at her.” “But wait you guys, she called him Gus”, like she knows him.” “No way, it’s the old ‘fun’ belt buckle scam I read about on the internet to prey on kids and lure them in. He’s a Lew, not a Gus. I say we go in – now.”
And go in they did. A hard shoulder to the door easily opened it. But the shoulder wasn’t needed – because the door wasn’t locked.
Inside, the young girl appeared incoherent, shaking uncontrollably. She was on her knees, pulling and tugging at the motionless body of Lew Louis. He was indeed wearing the big shiny “GUS” belt that she had bought for him at a flea market a year earlier. When he wasn’t wearing it, he was Grampa Lew, but when it was adorning his waist, he was always Grampa Gus.
As officers arrived, they summoned paramedics. But Grampa Gus was Grampa Gone.
Lew Louis was in fact not Lewis Louis. The guy was just plain Lew, according to his death certificate.
He was a 68 year old Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart. He had lived an honorable life, worked hard, and was a man decent to the core. He never hurt or harmed anyone, much less an innocent child, and over the years had been a good husband and father and a trusted friend to many. But time had taken a toll on him, as with most of us.
When his waistline grew, so did his cholesterol and blood pressure readings. His heart had weakened as well. Concerned, he wisely and acutely adjusted his diet resulting in significant weight loss, making him appear withered and worn. “Lisa, honey, your Grampa can’t keep his pants up because he’s so skinny now”, his daughter had told her daughter before that trip to the flea market where she saw the inexpensive, brown belt with the big brass buckle. She gift-wrapped it herself with Christmas paper even though it was the height of summer and gave it to him and they both had a great laugh over his new name. After a while, he wore it proudly and often, even hoping others would comment on his cherished conversation piece so he could tell them about Lisa and the story behind it. But no one ever did ask, least of all his new neighbors.
Lew Louis was a widower and his daughter was a widow. As his health had worsened, she insisted he come to live with her and Lisa, but he was a proud man and he realized he had indeed become a bit of a grouch sometimes and had drifted away from his friends as age and events taxed and strained his mind and body. So against her advice, he had rented an apartment 50 miles away to try to calm himself down on the inside, to seek a sustained tranquility and renewed energy in a quiet refuge of his own, and maybe then he would take her up on her standing offer. She agreed out of respect and gratitude for this man who had become her shoulder to lean on since her husband’s passing.
On the day of his death, Lisa’s mother had promised to tend to a sick friend from work and Lew had asked if he could bring the girl back to his “pad” (“Lisa, Grampa has a cool pad, you gotta see it”) for a few hours and assured her he was feeling alert and fine and that Lisa would be safe riding with him. Despite increasing the day’s total drive to 200 miles, which he no longer was accustomed to at all, she reluctantly agreed and saw them off with a blown kiss from her front yard.
A sensitive man within, he admittedly did feel a sting when he heard his new neighbors making fun of him and his name that day on the stairs. He was even momentarily tempted to proceed to his mailbox and tell them they were a bunch of assholes. But he checked himself and instead conjured up his most surly tone when booming out the question that shut them up. Face unseen, he was actually grinning like a fool when he asked it. In fact, it made his day, and he didn’t have many things that did anymore.
Isolated in his new surroundings, he had been oblivious to the unfounded fear and suspicion, the gossip and rumors, that were whirling all around him. Then came that fateful Sunday, and the sudden chaos of angry, raised voices and relentless pounding and pummeling on his door. Frenzied and frantic, Lisa was holding on to him tight as the fading light erased her from his sight forever.
Jen and Ed and Chris and the rest of the tenants reassured each other that they were only being good neighbors and watching out for an innocent child and protecting themselves from a reclusive stranger who grunted and looked away, a man who was so detached and evasive that he must be up to no good in there.
His apartment was soon rented to a personable young guy and Jen keeps wearing those low-cut tops and flirts with him whenever she can. Chris still indulges her whims. The daily gathering and chitchat with Ed and his crew at the mailboxes has resumed. All is back to normal in the hallways of the three floors and inside the 18 apartments.
Everything is as it was, and nothing was lost from the daily routine, except the sight of a gaudy belt buckle inscribed “GUS”, and that guy that wore it … you know, Lew Louis in Apt. 12.