Mephistopheles in Miami
Margaret F. Chen
Someone is moving in upstairs. I know because I heard footsteps up there yesterday, thudding from one end of the apartment to the other. I had been in my kitchen, preparing my lunch of iced tea and a grilled cheese sandwich, when I heard the footsteps, and I stopped and listened. They creaked through all the rooms above, pausing once in the master bedroom, and once in the kitchen—I know where the master bedroom and the kitchen are upstairs because my floor plan (the “Cambria”) is exactly the same as the one above. Both apartments were vacant when I first called complex’s leasing office two months ago, and I had chosen the lower unit, because I wanted the garden; the upper one has remained empty—until now. I heard the kitchen window upstairs roll open upon its track, and then slide shut again, snapping back into its lock (he or she must have looked down upon my small, meagerly planted yard). The footsteps then stumped back across the living room, and down the outside staircase, which is located directly to the right of my front door. By the time I thought of abandoning my uncut sandwich to look out the peephole in my door, the stranger was gone. I peered through the half-closed slats of the vertical blinds, but all I could see were the waving shadows of the eucalyptus trees on the sidewalk. I watched and waited a few more moments, but whoever it was did not come back.
This occurred on a Friday, and now it is Saturday afternoon. I am sitting at my cluttered dining-room table—a heavy, wooden, former library cast-off—drinking tea in shadowy darkness (a disadvantage of these “garden units”) while the August sun lingers outside the patio door and slants down upon the fence enclosing the yard. A neighbor’s air conditioner gives a low and steady hum, and children’s voices rise and fall in the distance, echoing like far-away bells. Someone is singing, too, a melancholy, classical tune in a high, thin voice, probably a pale and willowy music student practicing for a concert. I have not heard the footsteps yet today, but of course, this new tenant probably won’t be moving in right away. He or she must have been just checking the unit out yesterday; maybe he (or she) wanted to get an idea of where the furniture might go. I am both disappointed and excited by this turn of events. Disappointed because I will be losing the relative peace and quiet that I had possessed, with an empty apartment upstairs, and myself on the ground floor in a corner unit. Excited because there will finally be a new person moving in, and perhaps we can be friends. Since moving to this apartment complex last month, I had been hoping to make some friends, meet some of my neighbors, but I have found little in common with the young families that live here. Because it is summer, the children run about all day, to and from the swimming pool, up and down the paths, shouting at one another, and when they happen to be near my apartment when I venture out, they all stop their noisy activity as if on cue and stare at me.
I don’t blame them. I do seem out of place here—an awkwardly tall, pale, unattached woman, with pinned-up, dark-brown hair, always dressed in possibly too-bright skirts, white blouses, flat shoes, and my floppy-brimmed, brown hat (they probably call me the “hat lady”). Someone who stays home all day, and doesn’t “go to work.” I can understand the children’s (and their parents’) curiosity. How do I make my living, for example? If any of them had asked, I would have answered that I was a freelance writer—but, of course, that’s such a vague, unsatisfying answer. Most people—those who have the time, those who are curious, those who have asked in the past—usually want to know more. So I go on to explain that I specifically write biographies—on interesting and accomplished but obscure men and women. For example, last year I published a biography on the Art Deco painter, Sonya Lampiere; before that, I had completed a work on a rare-orchid breeder, named Marcus Thal. My focus for the past year has been on George Thomas Bethany, a creator and builder of roller coasters for various amusement parks along the East Coast. It is because of George Bethany that I am here, in this town—in this very apartment.
I had first seen a portrait of Bethany in a small university library, where I had been researching Marcus Thal. Both had grown up in Brooklyn, where I lived before moving to Florida, and both had graduated from the same school. I was immediately struck by Bethany’s resemblance to a favorite cousin of mine, James, now living in London—the same whitish-blonde hair, thick eyebrows, light blue eyes, long, bony face, thin mouth, and high cheekbones. The uncanny resemblance sparked my initial interest in Bethany as my next subject. And when I found out more about Bethany, I knew he would be my next subject.
George Bethany was an American inventor and businessman born in the mid-1800s, an innovator of roller-coaster design; he modeled his “gravity” railways after the coal mining cars of eastern Pennsylvania, and went on to build several of the first commercially successful roller-coasters on the East Coast, and a few in Florida and Chicago. Besides inventing the modern roller-coaster, he also conceived of the idea of having paying customers for his “pleasure rides”—thus opening up an entire new industry of amusement parks. After becoming extremely wealthy, George had retired at the age of fifty to this town outside of Miami. Two of his descendents, Michael Bethany and John Dorset, had started a real estate business, eventually building several hotels and apartment complexes throughout Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas. I had already spoken to John Dorset over the phone, and would be meeting with him and his brother sometime next month. Michael was currently on business overseas in Hong Kong, and John was visiting family in Virginia. The Grove Apartments, the apartment complex I had chosen, was a resort-style assemblage of cottages, several two-story buildings, and one sprawling, castle-like, central building. It was built in the 1950s and very conveniently located, close to the city library, restaurants, and Bethany’s former home. Here I intended to stay—for as long as I needed to.
There were many pleasant surprises when I had first moved in, such as the spaciousness of the private backyards, the beautiful, luxuriant flowers and trees. My garden was bare when I arrived, as I had told requested—only a small patio and a smooth, dirt ground, ready for planting. So far, I have installed only a few rose bushes and lemon trees, some pots of daylilies and daisies. The neighbors on my left seem not to have done much with their yard, either; I can see long patches of bare ground through the slats of the fence that separates us; a rusty bike leans against the stucco wall near their patio door, and bright, plastic toys are scattered about. Sometimes I see someone watering a potted plant hanging outside the patio door. I always call out hello, if we both happen to be outside at the same time, although I am not sure exactly with whom I am speaking.
Although I don’t know these neighbors well, they are friendly, and we always say hello to each other. I think they are Vietnamese or Korean (I sometimes accidentally get their mail, addressed to a Rosalyn or Jin Park)—a mom, a dad, a grandmother, and two young children. Sometimes aunts and uncles or friends visit. An assortment of shoes—green and yellow and pink striped slippers, tiny red flats, brown loafers—sit in rows on the welcome mat, neatly lining their front entrance. Once I caught a glimpse of the family, through their open front door, sitting around the table, eating their dinner. A strong, delicious, tangy smell drifted out upon the summer breeze—limes and coconut, I think. I went back to my own apartment, and looked up various Vietnamese noodle soup recipes on the internet, but the directions sounded terribly complicated, so I cut up some vegetables and made gazpacho instead. Anyway, I like the family next door, and the other families I see around the complex, and I like the front office staff. But I never move beyond the standard small talk with any of them. They all seem so self-contained, so politely uninterested. And unfortunately, there has been a complete turnover of all three leasing agents and the manager since I moved in. I had just gotten on friendly terms with the old manager and the assistants when one by one, they all vanished, to be replaced by at first one and then two, tall blonde, stylish women managers.
Over the rest of the week, between organizing new information about George Bethany retrieved from the Museum of Southeastern Florida archives, and typing up the chapter on his mysterious illness and death at the age of fifty-two, I continue to try and catch a glimpse of the new tenant. But every time I hear footsteps outside on the staircase, and look through the peephole in my front door, I only see the distorted backs of the moving men or the elongated figures of one of the two tall, blonde apartment managers. Where was the tenant? I catch a glimpse of a petite woman, with cropped, dark hair, and excitedly think, “She must be the one.” But I see her again, later, just as I am coming home from getting groceries, walking beside a tall, balding man in khaki shorts and a brown-and-gray striped polo shirt. They do not match each other—he is dressed like a middle-management type in his weekend clothes, and she in a bright yellow pantsuit. I hear the man say, “…and then she passed away last summer.” It is in the hopeful tone of a lonely man out on a first date, trying too hard, telling too much too soon, things that are too private. I figure out, from this conversation, that the lonely man and the cropped-haired woman are not together—she is in all likelihood a new leasing assistant whom I have not yet met, merely showing the upstairs apartment to a prospect. Yet, only a few days ago I had watched men in white shirts and black shorts, a sort of moving company uniform, I think, hauling a queen-size mattress and a mirrored dresser up the stairs. They had moved other things up too but I quit watching after the bed and the dresser. I was sure I would see the new tenants that very evening, when I picked up my mail by the front office. But no one ever did appear.
On Sunday, I take a break from the illness and death chapters. I think these chapters are beginning to get to me—last night I dreamed I was floating in a stagnant swimming pool, one that was draining slowly, and I could see greenish moss growing on the smooth walls of the pool. I am never very hungry in the mornings, but today, after the dream, the bland, brown toast and tea look even more unappetizing than usual. The Sunday paper sits on the table, with its black headlines and smeary photos. I feel tired and dull and can’t bring myself to pick up the inky paper, not even flip to the book reviews or the Style section for a jolt of entertainment. Instead, I put on one of my father’s records—Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—and sit and stare at the mass of photos and collection of magnets covering my refrigerator—souvenirs from amusement parks, cities, and state parks; magnets shaped like leaves and cans of soda or chocolate bars, or resembling old-fashioned signs or comic books or replicas of famous paintings. I am very fond of my magnets, each one collected at a different place and time. My favorite magnet is a black and white, 1950s photo of a man and woman—husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, I assume—riding a roller coaster, laughing and bravely waving their hands in the air as they plunge down the five-hundred foot track; “The Inferno: Coney Island!” is printed in a curly, circus-script above their smiling faces. The Inferno was one of George Bethany’s roller-coasters. I think of how ironic the name, The Inferno, is—George Bethany himself had been a devout man and former Sunday school teacher. There is a sense of defiance in it all, though. The man and woman laugh and seem to say: See? We’re flying down on The Inferno—it’s fun! It’s nothing at all!
I may love my magnets more, I’m afraid, than the photos they frame and surround on the refrigerator. There are photos of me, at different ages; photos of old school friends and old boyfriends. There is one of James, wearing a fedora and smoking a fat cigar; I confess, I had a crush on James as a teenager, although he is now married, to a childhood classmate, named Therese. I hear from James and Therese occasionally—around Christmas, and whenever they visit their friends in New York City.
There are also many photos of my parents. My father had been a professional photographer before he died; I was about four years old then. He had taken hundreds of pictures of our little family. But my mother, unable or unwilling to organize the bulk of these after he died, kept only the albums and a few of her favorites, and gave most of these pictures to me. I don’t remember anything about my father, and I was never close to my mother (she fell apart after my father’s death and ceased paying much attention to me—you could say that I mostly brought up myself). Most of the photos have, in fact, taken on an insistently happy yet strangely impersonal frozen aura, like the patient photos crammed onto the bulletin board at my dentist’s office—pictures of smiling strangers, engaged energetically in activities I know nothing about. I have mulled over many of my refrigerator photos, and it seems they could be interchangeable with the ones at my dentist’s office. I don’t know that toddler girl with the curly hair in the yellow dress, holding onto her father’s hand, frowning into the camera, or sitting in a field of daisies, laughing in her mother’s arms—this must be another child. Yet, she looks like me.
That evening, dozing in front of the news, with photos of George Bethany and of his roller-coasters on the coffee table, waiting to be sorted, I hear something upstairs, a bumping noise. My eyes open wide. It must be my new neighbor, as it is Sunday, and there wouldn’t be any of the office staff working now. There is the sound of the tap being turned on in the bathroom—the water rushes on and on, like a waterfall muffled behind a cave wall, and I assume that someone is taking a bath. Then the tap squeaks shut; there is singing, a scratchy tenor voice, in a foreign language, as from a recording—not quite opera, definitely not something contemporary. Who would listen to such music in the bathtub? I imagine a woman, with aromatic candles set up all around the darkened room. Yet, the footsteps that creak on my ceiling, after awhile, sound heavy, like a man’s, not a woman’s. The television above turns on—the news, just like on my own television. My watch says six o’clock—it isn’t too late. I can go upstairs, make up some excuse to meet this new person.
There is no one outside, and even the birds are silent; the waning sun has disappeared behind a bank of grey clouds, and the wind waves the slender trees back and forth. I peer up at the outside staircase and see lights seeping through the window blinds in the upstairs apartment. I run up and knock on the door; there is no answer, although I can hear the television. I knock again. It finally occurs to me that this person is not going to answer the door. I don’t think he or she can hear me. I climb back down the stairs, and go back into my apartment. A thudding noise from outside my patio door electrifies me; at first, I am rooted to the carpeted floor. But then I run towards the sound, slide open the glass patio door, and step outside. I am in my fenced-in, dusty garden—the sun edges out from behind the fast-moving clouds, and late sunlight illuminates the yard once more. The six-foot privacy fence has a door which I rarely use, leading out to the parking lot and down past the walled-in backyards of single-family homes, and I see that this fence door is slightly ajar. But, if someone had been here—wouldn’t there be footprints in the dirt, leading towards the door? There aren’t any. I peek out around the gate before latching it again—there is a shadow walking away, sauntering down the sidewalk past the houses of the neighborhood. It is a very tall, thin shadow—that of a man’s, wearing something like a blazer and trousers. I can’t tell what color his hair or clothes are, because he is too far away, but they look dark, whether due to evening shadows or their natural color. The man seems to be enjoying the sunset, not in any hurry at all. He picks off a flower from a tree hanging over a wall from someone’s backyard, tucks it into his blazer pocket, and continues down the street.
The television upstairs chatters all night, keeping me awake, and in the morning, I feel dazed from lack of sleep. I call the new maintenance man—Albert, a tanned, barrel-shaped man with two dark-brown commas for a mustache—who arrives at nine, and allows me to go upstairs with him to see what is going on. He knocks on the door, and unlocks it, when there is no answer. The light is still on in the living room, and just as I have insisted to Albert all along, the television is talking away.
“Well,” says Albert. “That’s really strange.”
“Strange? Why?” I ask. “Who lives here now?”
“No one,” he says. “This is a model unit.”
I look around, and sure enough the furniture is all immaculate and perfect, in a generic sort of way—an olive-colored upholstered sofa set; the cream and brown square-patterned rug; the matching glass coffee and end tables; the white, wood dining set.
“But,” I say,” why did you knock if you knew this was a model unit?”
Albert shrugs. “I don’t know. I mean, with you telling me about the television and all. Maybe there was someone living here. The office don’t always tell me everything.”
“I heard someone here last night,” I say. “Taking a bath.” I hurry into the bathroom, but everything is in dark and perfect order—the fluffy, brown bath mat; the dry, folded towels; the unused bar of soap by the sink.
Albert says, “It don’t look like no one was here. Maybe you hear a different neighbor?”
A model apartment—of course, that explains everything. I am relieved the mystery is over. Yet there is a nagging feeling, a lot of things don’t quite fit; I resolve to call the front office later to hear what they had to say about Albert’s report; I wanted this straightened out, once and for all. It is obvious to me that the leasing staff doesn’t communicate well with either tenants or maintenance. Not only was there never any notice when the old staff left and the new people started, now Albert has confessed the office doesn’t always tell him what is going on. If the upstairs apartment is a model unit, for example, who has been using it? Why doesn’t Albert know who it is? Someone had been taking a bath there, watching television, for godssakes. Why wasn’t he more interested or concerned? Was it that man I saw behind the parking lot? Was it even safe here? That man could have been in my backyard, although I am beginning to question whether I had really heard that thud outside my patio door yesterday. I find myself going over different scenarios—maybe someone is about to move in and Albert doesn’t know it yet, maybe someone is sneaking in—that tall, thin man!—and using the apartment, maybe someone has already rented the unit—one of the leasing agents, for example—and that man was the boyfriend; these are the only explanations I can think of at the moment. I can’t think about it anymore, as my editor calls and wants to know where my next George Bethany chapters are; I draw the blinds in my bedroom, sit at my cramped desk, and try to work.
By noon I have sifted through all the published material surrounding Bethany’s death—family testimonials, autopsy reports (death by drowning), health records, newspaper and magazine articles—and start writing. I also have plenty of my own material to work with, having conducted several interviews last year with various, scattered descendents—some were still living in Brooklyn, some in the Midwest, a great grandson and his wife and their grandchildren were out in Southern California. There is something really off about George Bethany’s death—how could someone who was once a high-school swimming champion just drown on a boating trip taken on a calm, clear-skied day? This mystery preoccupies me so thoroughly, I forget about calling the apartment office about the upstairs mystery. When I finally remember to do this, at around three in the afternoon, the line is busy. It is past five when I think about walking to the office in person; I decide to go there first thing in the morning.
I am searching in my refrigerator for something to make for dinner, when I hear shuffling noises upstairs again. Just like yesterday, the tap in the bathroom turns on. I hear the same music, and then, again, footsteps to the living room. I hurry outside and up the staircase, remembering too late that I have no shoes on, and my hair and clothes are awry.
The front door to the apartment is open. Someone says, “Come in.” Where have I heard that voice before? I know it—a smooth, melodious voice, with a hint of laughter just beneath. If I had a favorite kind of voice, that would be it. Sitting at the white dining table is the tall, thin man I saw yesterday, slowly walking down the sidewalk—or, I think it is the same man. There is a lavender vase of purple and white orchids (which was not there yesterday) and two porcelain cups of tea (somehow, I know it is tea) arranged precisely on the table. As for the person sitting in front of me, there is something very familiar about him. His longish hair is not dark, as I imagined last night, but very blond, almost white in color, as are his long eyelashes and thick eyebrows. His eyes are such a light blue, they look almost colorless, and his face is angular, with a high forehead and cheekbones. He is very pale, and dressed rather formally and very warmly, for an August afternoon—a tweed blazer, pressed trousers, an oxford shirt, polished loafers. This man—he is not handsome, although individually, his features are quite good.
This man looks somewhat familiar.
He looks like my cousin, James.
No—like George Bethany.
I realize that I am shaking a little—from nervousness, from shock, or both. Instead of moving backwards, however—carefully back out the door and down the stairs—I walk forward.
“Amanda Genevieve Langdon,” he says. “Greetings.”
“How did you know my name?”
“I overheard,” he says. “Somewhere.”
From Albert, I thought. But I wondered when Albert had ever called me by my full name. “You live here then?”
“But I was told this was a model unit.”
He laughs, and his pale eyes suddenly seemed to take on a warmer, deeper color for a moment, but maybe I just imagine that.
I persist (rather rudely, I admit), “Where are you from? Was that you I heard up here yesterday?”
“Probably,” he says. “I’m sorry—was I being loud?”
Here I flush a little, as I know I speak rather loudly myself sometimes, when I am on the phone. What had he heard?
The man continues, sly and smiling, “Don’t worry, I’ll try to be more quiet. Would you like some tea?” He nods towards the cups on the table. I wonder how he knew I would be coming. It is just a coincidence, I tell myself. He might have tea every afternoon at this time. The extra cup is for any visitors who might drop by. When he sees my hesitation, he says, jokingly, “Don’t be afraid. It’s just tea. I promise.”
I step up to the table, and suddenly poke him in the arm. He does not look surprised, and I am not surprised that he isn’t surprised.
“You’re real,” I say.
“Who are you?”
“But I’ve told you. I’m your neighbor.”
“You look like my cousin, James,” I say. “A little.”
The man smiles, “That, I think, is a compliment. But I am not James—my name is Richard.” He takes a long sip of tea, and then clears his throat, as if he is about to give a lecture. “You’ve been working too hard, Amanda. All that work and where does it get you? No friends, no family, a one-bedroom apartment, here in…The Grove Apartments—,” here he makes an exaggerated flourish with his right arm and rolls his eyes. “And so, here I am. To help you. I know what you’ve been up to. Your search to understand certain persons—difficult, elusive persons, I know. ‘Those who know her know her less—the nearer they get.’ Or maybe I should say ‘him’? Who said that, by the way?”
“Yes. Emily.” The man says this as if he knows her, and I laugh out loud at his ridiculousness. He laughs, too, good-naturedly. He has beautiful, white teeth, which, again, doesn’t surprise me at all.
“You’ve chosen some interesting people, haven’t you,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“Take George Bethany, for instance. His rivals killed him. You find that hard to believe. Don’t you? That people whose business it is to amuse others would resort to that kind of thing. And George was such a generous, kind-hearted man.”
I am stunned into a long silence. The abandoned swimming pool from my dreams forms itself again in my mind—I had read about Bethany’s death by drowning over and over again in the papers. All accounts had insisted that he had fallen off his boat, while sailing with his wife and another couple, their best friends.
I say slowly, “The newspapers said it was an accident. I checked every single article and interview. The hospital and death records. All of them confirm it was an accident.” But I know that what Richard says is true. It had occurred to me, despite all the “official” reports I had read in my research. Bethany had been hiding out in southeastern Florida. Who would believe roller coaster inventors had any enemies?
“That’s what I like about you, Amanda. You do a good job.”
“What do you mean?” I say. “How do you know what I do?” I back away, torn between wanting to continue my conversation with this Richard, and thinking I should call the police as soon as I get back downstairs. This man, after all, might be some kind of lunatic or stalker, although he looked like neither. Just get downstairs, I tell myself. Pretend you aren’t scared.
Richard laughs again—an open, innocent, almost boisterous laugh. He begins to hum something familiar. I have the urge to laugh, too, and suddenly, I relax a bit.
“This is all a joke,” I say, maybe more to myself than Richard. “I wanted someone to talk to, I needed someone—and so you came, is that it? Someone sent you. Who? Who sent you?”
“No one sent me, Amanda,” Richard says patiently. “I’m sorry if I alarmed you. Let me assure you—I am your friend. Your neighbor. That’s all you need to know for now. But you’re tired. So good night—for now. Come back later—tomorrow maybe. We’ll talk about your work. George Bethany. Anything you like. Whatever is on your mind.”
The door, I notice now, is open—had it been like that, the entire time? Had anyone else seen? I hurry down the stairs without looking back at Richard, but a sensation of dizziness hits me, and I sit down on the hard, bottom step, and lean my head against the handrail. Everything becomes a little blurry, and I try to focus on the neat row of shoes lined up in front of the Parks’ door. They remind me of my own feet, bare and cold—I have the overwhelming urge to slip my feet into a pair of those shoes. The fluffy slippers look comfortable and warm. I notice that the father’s loafers are missing, which means he probably hasn’t come home from work yet. The mother’s red slippers are also missing. But strangely, I see them—the missing red slippers—coming towards me on the sidewalk—with Mrs. Park’s white-socked feet in them. The sequins on the shoes sparkle in the waning sunlight. I squint up at her; she is carrying the mail.
“Miss Amanda?” Mrs. Park’s high, tiny voice floats down. “Are you okay?”
After a minute or two, I tell her quite crisply that I am fine, although I can’t seem to lift my head from the iron handrails.
“You don’t look okay.” Mrs. Parks hauls me up—she’s surprisingly strong, tiny as she is—and I lean on her soft, sweatered arm. I sneak a look up at the upstairs apartment, but the door is closed and the window is dark.
“Mrs. Park,” I say suddenly, pointing upstairs. “Do you know who the new tenant is?”
“No new tenant,” she says, with raised eyebrows. “Mr. Richard Bethany lives there. He used to be in another apartment. Over there,” she waves vaguely in the opposite direction, towards the pool and main office. “His family owns the complex. And others, too.” Of course, I think, shuddering a little. Richard Bethany is Michael Bethany’s son; he was supposed to be traveling with his father. But instead, here he is, and I didn’t know why. And moving into the apartment above mine was definitely not a coincidence. His father must have told him I was coming. Richard said he was here to help, after all. Now I will be able to find out what really happened to George Bethany. I would set the record straight about his death. And Richard, his descendent, this terribly handsome man—someone who looks like my cousin, James, no less—is here to help me with my latest, my greatest—and my last—biography.
What more could I have asked for?
The sweet smell of orange blossoms is so overpowering that I become unsteady and almost fall again. I had never noticed such a heavy concentration of the flowers by the stairs before. Mrs. Park feels me swaying and grabs hold of my arm even tighter.
So I know that I’ll be going up to see my friend, Richard, again soon. But for now, Mrs. Park and I walk together, stumble rather, towards her warm, good-smelling apartment. I know I’ll be safe there, even if it is for just a little while.
Margaret F. Chen’s stories have appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Medulla Review, Metazen, The Legendary, Yesteryear Fiction, and other journals. She has twice been nominated for the UCLA Writers’ Program Kirkwood Prize, won Second Place in the 2012 Bacopa Literary Review Contest for Short Fiction, and was a Finalist in the September 2011 Glimmer Train Fiction Open.