Through A Mirror Darkly

Gill and I went apartment hunting yesterday. We found a great place: great location, great size, decent price, and with a bit of luck we’re going to get it. But that’s not the place I’m going to talk about.

I’m going to tell you about the apartment we didn’t take.

It wasn’t a bad place. About the same size overall – bigger bedroom, smaller living room. It had its pluses and minuses. All things being equal it was a dead heat between this place and the other. But as we were guided through a story unfolded. When it was over, you couldn’t have paid me to live there.

You see, the apartment is haunted.

We were taken up to the third floor by elevator. The manager led us down a pale narrow passage until we reached the very end, room 316. 316 was the number of our apartment in Victoria, the one Gill and I lived in before we left Canada almost a decade ago. Even the hallways were similar in style, painted in 1960’s Californian style stucco.

“I have to apologize,” said the manager. He’s a stocky bearded man. Cheerful, a people person who loves to socialize. “The place is a total mess. We haven’t had a chance to clear it out yet. The previous tenant died in hospital just last week.” This shocks me a little, but not much. I’ve had my share of death these last couple of years, and it’s not like I knew him.

But as we’re let inside it becomes clear this person did not die of old age. In the living room I saw a computer on the desk. It wasn’t the latest model and he might have been a tech savvy senior, but on the balcony there was a bicycle. A mountain bike. A quick glance around the room and my eyes falls on dozens of little signs that told me the same thing – this was not a senior’s apartment.

“Excuse me, but if you don’t mind me asking, how did the tenant die?” I ask.

The manager sighs. It’s clear he knew the man. “It was his liver. He drank himself to death.”

Now I am shocked, but it doesn’t answer the question I really wanted to ask. “How old was he?”

He thinks about it. “In his fifties, I think.”

I’m floored. I look back and see a guitar speaker next to the sofa, half-buried in clutter.

“He was a musician,” the manager continues. “Did pretty well for himself back in the day. Didn’t need money, so he just stayed inside and drank.”

Charles, Diana and Gillian go to check out the bedroom, but I continue to explore the living room. On the bookshelf are a couple of fedora-like hats. Among his books I see The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and a special hardcover edition of The Hobbit. There are a number of history and fantasy novels here, many of which I recognize. On one wall is a British flag and pictures of Piccadilly Circus. On a DVD shelf is a collection of action and sci-fi movies.

At this point I realize my heart is pounding and I’m breathing a bit faster.

The manager comes into the living room and pulls out some large framed pictures. “This is him,” he says, pointing to a concert poster, one of several.

It looks like it’s from the late seventies, there are four people in the picture in black and white on a yellow background. Three of them look like the Bee Gees, the fourth is dressed normally in dark clothing. He’s a slightly overweight guy with short dark hair and a high hairline. “He was a hell of a musician. Lived in England for a while. Real shame. Tried AA a few times, but it didn’t do any good. Had a degree, didn’t do anything with it.” To be honest I can’t quote the manager exactly, the snippets of information sink in, but I’m lost in my own world.

What in the name of Christmas Yet To Come is going on here? Change the man’s profession from musician to writer and I’m looking into some kind of a dark and twisted future that could have been.

The manager continues to reminisce, a hint of sadness in his conversational tone. “He was just bored, I think. Didn’t need any money, had nothing to do.”

This snaps me back to reality, because it jars with something I always assumed of myself, yet it has the horrible ring of truth to it.

“I always though if I didn’t need any money, I’d be off doing all kinds of stuff.” Ever since I was a kid I told myself if I won the lottery I’d travel the world, have all kinds of adventures, meet all kinds of people.

But would I?

I assumed that without a job forcing me to stay put and money to burn I would be free to go somewhere new every day and wouldn’t have to worry about costs – the two things that usually hold me back.

Looking around this room I could imagine see myself in a similarly messy room doing nothing but play X-Box and order pizza. I’d talk about going somewhere, but just never quite get around to it.

But no. I’m not like that, am I? I can’t even stay put here in Sechelt without going for a hike every other day. I got ants in my pants and am damn grateful for it. Then again, I gained fifty pounds in one year in Japan and never noticed. Time sneaks up on you, lethargy doubly so.

Charles and Diana continue to ask about the apartment, but I don’t care about it anymore. I wonder about this man. How could he live like this? Why did he let himself die? Full of talent, no want for money, how can you get bored? There’s so much to do! How could you not live every day going “Hot damn, it’s good to be alive! I rock!”

How can you just “not care” yourself to death?

What makes it sadder is that he knew he was destroying himself. He must have known for a while – he tried AA several times. What was he thinking when they took him to the hospital a couple weeks ago? Did he plead with God for one more chance? How many chances had he been given? Or was he just tired of it all and ready for the end?

A man could get dizzy thinking about all this. It didn’t help that I have an uncle who has pickled his liver, or that some of my most unsettling childhood memories involve my grandma sitting quietly in a dark room, the sound of ice clinking in a half filled tumbler.

When we were kids, my brother and I swore to live sober. No booze, no drugs. We rationalized the choice in different ways, I suspect, but so far we’ve both stuck to it.

I look in this apartment, all that’s left of the wasted life of a man whose name I don’t even know, and a imagine a strange alternate history. One that starts when I’m twelve. I find some of grandma’s hooch and decide one swig wouldn’t hurt, heck it might be fun. Then I find my uncle’s guitar and discover I’m not too bad at making noise on it.

Now I’ve walked in on myself at the end of the story. It’s like something out of the Twilight Zone.

And it wasn’t just about me. Another one of the man’s bookshelves was filled with Scottish history and Enid Blighton children’s books, his closet filled with the kinds of board games she played, and other little things that connected to Gillian. I think there was a lesson here for her as well, because Gillian can be even more like me than I am.

I see some coins on the dining table, almost hidden among the rubbish scattered about. I pick up a loonie. Quietly, out of earshot of the others, I have my own little version of a seance. What the hell, it couldn’t hurt.

“Okay, here are the rules. Heads yes. Tails no. Are you still here?” I flip the coin.

Heads.

I frown. “You sure?”

Heads.

“You’re not just yanking my crank, are you?”

Tails.

“Fair enough. I’m sorry, but I have to ask. Do you think we should move in here?”

Tails.

“Do you think we should get the hell as far away from here as possible?”

Heads.

“Okay. Thanks. It’s what I was thinking, too. You seemed like a decent guy. I’m sorry about what happened. Are you going to be okay?”

Heads.

“I hope so. Take care.” I put the loonie gently down on the counter, head up.

Eventually we thank the manager and leave room 316. Rod Sterling he is not, but when the manager shuts the door I’m breathing just a little bit easier.

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