“Delightfully rambunctious...a comedic treat...Cannily deploys and turns on their heads all of the standard elements of the nostalgic coming of age tale...Nobody would want to live in Apartment X, but it’s a fun place to visit.” — Pottersfield Portfolio
“Realistic characters with dialogue that rings true...a heartfelt story with which many readers will be able to identify.” — Canadian Book Review Annual
The Summer of Apartment X lurks in everyone’s past: the first foray beyond the view of elders, the first attempt at self-support, the shocking recognition that adulthood involves more than sand, sex, and cars. Lesley Choyce recreates this exhilarating terror in the Technicolor of a B-movie poster, nostalgia undercut at every turn by ebullient humour.
Recent Adult Fiction by Lesley Choyce
The Republic of Nothing (1994)
Trap Door to Heaven (1996)
Dance the Rocks Ashore (1997)
World Enough (1998)
It’s all the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date.
— George Bernard Shaw
Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe.
— Alfred North Whitehead
I am two fools, I know, for loving, and saying so.
— John Donne
All the World’s Monsters
The Proper Equipment
A Perfectly Fine Day
The Legion of Male Virgins Betrayed
The World of Nerds and Cockroaches;or a Dark Shaft Direct to Hell
Melanie, Behind Glass
Spider People from Venus and the Night of the Holy Fender
Organized Crime Back in Town
Falling in Love with a Chameleon
The Plastic Fantastic Lover Meets Mr. Lonely
It was probably my fault that we got a late start at looking for a summer apartment, my fault that we settled into 307½ Hibiscus Avenue. But nobody cursed me for it outright. I didn’t know whether I would stay home for the summer and work at the sled factory or go off to university early to take a summer course in biology to get a head start on the other freshmen. Richard and Brian were already planning to work at the shore this summer, fifty miles away, and they waited for me to decide. “You can make good money there. Enough to pay your part of the rent and still save some. You won’t have to live at home,” Richard tried to persuade me. I wasn’t impressed.
“You can meet girls, stupid,” he added. “And you’ll have a place to take them at night.”
I had a vision of a modern third floor apartment overlooking the beach and the sea. Cruising the boardwalk and learning the ropes. I was different from Richard, however, in one respect. He would be looking to get laid. I would be looking to fall in love.
“It all adds up to the same thing,” Richard would chant whenever I brought up our differences.
So they wouldn’t let me into university for the summer ahead of my fall admission anyway. And the bottom dropped out of the sled industry for the first time in thirty years.
307½ Hibiscus was advertised for a price we could afford, when split three ways, assuming that we could all manage to land jobs hauling dirty dishes. It was the first place we looked at. We simply drove down the day we were ready to move in for the summer. I followed Brian’s 1961 Chevy Biscayne in my disintegrating Volkswagen. Richard went down with Brian, his only claim to automotive hardware being a rust-seized engine from an MGB that he carried along in Brian’s trunk. Richard wouldn’t settle for anything less than an MG. Someone had given him the busted engine, and he hoped to rebuild it in his room over the summer while trying to put his hands on other used MG parts — fenders, trans-axle, windshield, etc. One day he would have enough fragments to recreate the original. “For next to nothing. Wait and see.”
Brian’s Chev, like my VW, used massive quantities of oil and started with an asthmatic wheezing that made you think of old men dying. We bought our oil in bulk from garages where mechanics drained it from family cars, let it settle for a week, then sold us the cleaner stuff at the top. Odds were about fifty-fifty that our cars would start at any given moment. With two vehicles, we figured we would never be totally at a loss for transportation.
Brian was the last of the not-so-bright nice guys, but he required very little for his existence. Richard and I were glad to have him around, believing he would be easy to get along with and wouldn’t want to take up much space. His mother and father were folding up the family anyway and dividing their worldly goods, so Brian was on his own, and this move for him was not necessarily temporary.
Hibiscus was just off Dahlia, all the streets being named for flowers that could not survive the year here without being taken in for the winter. 307½ came up quickly among the packed-in row of three-storey wood frame summer houses built in the 1920s as three family units. They were now parcelled up into tiny apartments, so that each placid-looking tenement was a veritable ghetto, complete unto itself. They were the kind of houses that my father, the carpenter, would have said were thrown up, held together with spit and string, sometimes less. Apparently they went up before building codes. Landlords now got by through intricate manoeuvrings with the authorities and special classifications that allowed the city to ignore the usual rules. The rooms were not considered “occupied for residential purposes” if they were rented to “tourists” on a weekly basis. This meant that leases were drawn up so that you rented by the week, and you were required to be absent from your apartment for at least three hours on a Sunday afternoon before moving back in as if you were a new tenant on Sunday evening. Out of generosity, you were allowed to leave your things in the apartment, just in case you wanted to come back.
Brian passed right by 307½. He had only first and third gear. No second, no reverse. So he had to circle around the block again while I squeezed in between two ice cream vendors. When Brian came around for a second sweep, he aimed for a slot, the only one available for possibly two miles. Since he was incapable of backing in, he came at it head-on with a radical last-second wrench of the steering wheel that allowed him to minimally graze the front right fender of a pristine Buick while nipping up to brutalize the licence plate of an unsuspecting station wagon. But he had, as they were saying these days in California, found his space. At that, his front left tire was rakishly propped on the curb, making the car look like a dog about to take a pee. He belatedly discovered that he had parked in front of the only fire hydrant on the block while effectively blocking two driveways.
Undaunted, we went to check out 307½, assured that among us we had fifty-one years of experience in the ways of the world and were not about to be fooled by any overly shrewd landlord or lady this bustling shore town had to offer. When no one answered the front door, we walked into a dimly lit hallway that smelled of musk incense and stopped-up toilets. I knocked on the door labelled A. It was a Sunday morning, not past ten o’clock. We had decided that I should be the one to do the talking. Brian had trouble expressing himself in general, and while Richard could be eloquent, he lacked a certain degree of polite objectivity that often made him appear to be a professional and well-practised asshole, which he sometimes was.
A tall, long-haired, dark-skinned and slightly hung over young woman answered the door. She was wearing a Pepsi-Cola towel. All three of us realized at once that we had come to the right town to live out the summer and the final days of our adolescence in good company.
“Hello. Is the landlord in? I came to inquire about the apartment,” I said. Richard cringed at the word “inquire.”
The woman adjusted her towel to let us know she was unshaken by our stares. She asked me if I had a cigarette. We all fumbled through our pockets the way they do in the movies, but since none of us smoked, we had nothing to offer but love.
“It’s okay. Relax. You look like the Three Stooges.
Which apartment did you want to look at?”
“307½.” I knew that, in actual fact, Richard looked a little like Moe, and Brian was an almost perfect look-alike for Larry, but I refused to even entertain the notion that I bore the slightest resemblance to Curly. I only weighed maybe 125 pounds, and I stood a towering five feet ten inches.
“No, Boy Scout. The whole building is 307½. Besides, the landlord is invisible. You’ll never meet him. No one fixes anything here, and once a week the Apeman comes by to collect the money. His name is Freddy, only Freddy ain’t anywhere around here till Sunday afternoon. Only room empty is X.”
“The apartments have letters. A through X. Remember, just like in school?”
“Around back, near the shower. You’ll see the door.” The towel was slipping.
“We want to thank you very much. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
“Sure thing, sweetcakes.” She was looking at Curly when she said it. The door closed with a whisper. We heard a fart from the other side. We looked at each other in amazement. I don’t think any of us had ever heard a girl fart before.
We all liked the notion of living in Apartment X, a mysterious den of so-far unimaginable iniquity. The door to it was not only near the outdoor shower where sea bathers rinsed their saline bodies fresh, it was in the shower. You had to go through the wooden slat enclosure to cross the threshold of Apartment X.
“Can you imagine the possibilities?” Richard suggested. “How many times might we accidentally open the back door and discover some luscious thing completely déshabillé beneath the shower at our very own back door? I don’t think we should see this as a liability.”
“There’d better be enough room for my weights,” Brian reminded us. That was his only real requirement of our living quarters. He had to be able to keep his weights in his room because he lifted sometimes in the middle of the night when he couldn’t get to sleep. Ever since his parents had found the right lawyers, Brian had almost doubled the size of his biceps, and his chest had popped out like something ready to erupt.
Apartment X was like nothing we had ever seen. There was one window in the whole place. It was in the “kitchenette,” and it looked out over the garbage cans and a thin alley wafered between two perfectly identical buildings. If you walked in the door of any one of them, would there be also apartments A through X, all rented to beautiful, slightly hung over young women who lounged around in Pepsi-Cola towels?
The kitchenette had a hot plate left over from Thomas Edison’s laboratory, a turd-brown refrigerator that took up half of the floor space, and enough room left to change batteries in a flashlight. When opened, the refrigerator revealed a cave of ice that was the freezer about to foreclose on the compartment below, where enough space remained to store three, possibly four beers and a leftover hamburger. The compressor sang something reminiscent of a Gaelic tune. None of us could quite place it.
I reread the ad, crumpled in my sweaty palm: “For rent. Three-bedroom housekeeping apartment. Completely furnished and equipped. $150 per week. Seasonal lease only.”
The three bedrooms, along with the kitchen, made four rooms, each of equal size. The bedrooms had no windows. A bare bulb hung from a frayed cord to light each room at morning, noon or night. The beds were rusted army frames, each sporting its own urine-stained slab of foam mattress. Every room had excess space for actually getting out of bed and standing up before entering the rest of the apartment. Brian found the toilet in what he thought was the only closet in the place. There was a cracked seat on a ghoulish yellowed ceramic bowl, and if you pulled your knees in tight, you could probably sit down with the door closed, in which case you would suffocate if you stayed in there for more than seven minutes. There was no ventilation of any sort.
“It has a certain ambience,” Richard offered after our three-minute inspection.
“I’m not opposed to it.” That was Brian, who made a career out of not being for or against anything. Primarily, he didn’t like being opposed to things.
“It’s a shit hole,” I announced.
“Perfect for a medium-sized family of rats. A rat hole.”
“It could be worse.”
But by three o’clock in the afternoon, we knew it was the only available rat hole in the whole damn town that we could afford. We drove around in my Volkswagen to avoid backing-up problems. Richard obsessively played my radio at full volume until the speaker finally cracked, and I was really ticked off. Brian had brought along a pair of small hand weights and worked out in the back seat, making the car bounce up and down with each thrust. After a hot, sweaty tour of the town and a quick look at the beach, where glistening bodies lay cheek to cheek in both directions along the sandy shoreline, we returned to Apartment X and found the Apeman making his rounds to collect the weekly fee.
“Just go down in your apartment and I’ll be down when I’m done here. Just don’t do no rearranging of furniture till you sign the lease.”
I think he envisioned us harbouring a yearning to move our beds a full six inches to another wall. We sat and waited. There was no kitchen table, no communal space at all. We each sat on our lonesome pee-stained bed and waited.
Richard looked discouraged. “This is like a ghetto, only it’s worse; there’s less space. In a genuine ghetto you get big drafty rooms, broken windows. We should be so lucky.”
“This sucks beyond belief.” I was remembering my visions of meeting a beautiful girl on the boardwalk, bringing her home to my bachelor apartment and plying her with wine on a balcony overlooking the sea (or at least the bay) until she succumbed to the irresistible romance of it all.
“We won’t be spending that much time here. It’s the beach that counts. And we’ll get good jobs. I don’t mind keeping my weights under my bed.”
“Where am I gonna rebuild my engine? How can I bring a lovely wench back to this...this Black Hole of Calcutta?”
“Stop always thinking of yourself, Dick.” Richard hated being called Dick, as did every other Dick in North America. I was still bitter at him about the cracked speaker and annoyed that he was simply looking for sex, looking after his lust, in direct contrast to my own sincerity about finding someone to love. All my life I had been chasing girls who had known me from the time I was eight years old and who, as a result, had never been able to see beyond the well-mannered wimp that I had been. I was here investing in my emotional future, and all Richard could grieve about was the bad prospects of bringing back strange girls for sex.
“The Apeman cometh,” Richard said from his room. The landlord’s agent was in the shower stall, knocking at our door.
“It’s not the Hilton,” he conceded.
“People have actually survived in this dungeon before?”
“Look, if you don’t want it, I have other tenants waiting.”
“We want it,” I said. I wanted it. I wanted something. I didn’t want to go home and do dirty-diaper pickups again for minimum wage. And Brian had nowhere to go. I was thinking of him.
“Here’s the lease. You have to take it for the whole summer, but technically you only rent it by the week. If you can’t pay the rent, we throw you out, then take you to court. Breach of contract.” He spotted Brian’s hand weights on his bed. “Pumpin’ iron, eh, kid? That’s good stuff. Just don’t forget about your brain too. Eat lots of carbohydrates.” The Apeman flexed twin tattoos — lobsters, one on each arm.
“I was wondering about the sink.”
“Well, truth is you’re not supposed to cook in here. But you can do it. It’s only fair. You got a choice between using the toilet or the shower. Most of our tenants prefer the shower. Just don’t leave no spaghetti noodles lying around out there. It looks bad.”
Richard was studying the lease. It was fifteen pages long and printed in a light blue ink that was almost invisible in the blinding glare of a twenty-watt light bulb. The refrigerator was doing “D