My Landlord

It was finally raining in the desert after a dry monsoon season that had brought plenty of wind and lightning, but not much rain. All the hard work the landscapers had done yesterday was being washed away, sticks and leaves fell off the trees above our patio, the dirt from the driveway was picked up and splattered against our windows and small outdoor table. I wondered if our landlord would send the landscapers back out after the storm cleared. I hoped not. My wife hated the sound of their leaf blowers and the music they played from the truck speakers.

Delivery vans passed up and down our street. Some Amazon, some unmarked. There were also cars delivering groceries, but those were likely Amazon controlled, too. Headlights on in the afternoon, windshield wipers blazing for the first time in God knows how long. As they raced through the puddles that collected near the curb, water sprayed up behind them, adding a definition and movement that our quiet block normally lacked. We stood by the window watching these little paintings when my wife asked if we should do anything about the cats outside, if there was a way we could protect them from the weather and the cars. I understood her concern—our neighborhood was practically a barrio for strays, so much so that they formed cliques: a group of Siamese and orange tabbies spread themselves out across one neighbor's lawn, while a gang of black and whites commandeered a corner light post.

However, I told Amethyst I didn't think there was much we could do. Any cat that wasn't already squirreled away in shelter to ride out the storm likely didn't stand a chance at surviving another, and it's not as if we could bring them inside, especially with two cats of our own. We

would just have to conduct a brief scout afterward to see if any cats have been struck by a van or lightning.

She didn't like this reasoning and walked off to make some chamomile tea. Due to the open floor plan of the converted garage we called home, I heard every move she made, from the preparation of the tea bags to the whirr of the electric kettle.

Despite my callousness, she made me a cup of tea to go along with hers, and we stood by the windows for a bit longer, watching the rain that showed no sign of stopping, our cats sleeping on the couch behind us, one of them snoring. I felt like I could close my eyes. I wanted to dream.

Amethyst collected things from around the house, like a bleach blanket with the company logo I received for hitting metrics last year and some spare wood she had left over from a homemade shelf. She made a little tent outside our door by using cardboard as a base and propping two planks against the wall at an angle, with thicker two-by-fours standing in as makeshift jambs. She draped the blanket over this structure and set a small bowl of tap water along with a handful of food inside. I had to admit this construction was clever, and I think she was surprised that I didn't disapprove. But what could I say?

I gave her a towel to dry off. Our lights flickered at the sound of thunder. I joined the cats on the couch, stretching out to read a book while she fixed lunch for herself in the kitchen, turning around every so often to see if any cats took up her offer.

The pattern of the rain and the effects of the chamomile tea made reading impossible. I woke up to the sound of a baby crying and I saw Amethyst at our front door. Because of my position, I couldn't see who she was talking to, but I could see enough to know she wasn't wearing a mask. I jumped up as if I was late for work, grabbing one of the many masks we kept

on the counter, while strapping one across my own face in the meantime. Clay, our neighbor and landlord, was at the door, also unmasked, trying to hand off his child to my wife. Amethyst held her hands up, not necessarily as an act of refusal, but not as if she was accepting, either. Clay had tears streaming down his face I could see even through the rain. He hopped from leg to leg like he had to pee. I reached around Amethyst from behind to put her mask on, my chest touching her back as I threaded each loop around her ears and pinched the bridge of the nose to form a seal, the most intimate we've been in front of another person in perhaps our entire marriage.

I told Clay to step back, but he didn't listen. He just needed me to take the baby, he said. He kept calling it the baby, as if he forgot it’s name. That was okay, as I'd forgotten the baby's name, too.

Please, Grace isn’t breathing right, he said over the baby screams. Grace was his wife. He needed to get her to the hospital, but couldn't bring the baby with him for reasons unknown. Maybe new restrictions were in place that I wasn't aware of. There was also an outside chance that he was lying, and just didn't want to deal with the baby anymore. After all, I didn't know him very well, and it's possible he was sick of being a father or simply having another mouth to feed.

I tried to take charge of the situation. No, I said. We can’t take the baby. Not with the virus. Clay stopped his Saint Vitus dance. A strange blend of emotions swept across his face, a mix between frustration and doubt and maybe even relief. He smiled, placed the baby in the cat shelter Amethyst had made and ran back to his home, the main house to our little garage.

Moments later, he escorted his wife out to the driveway. Her skin looked blue and she was hobbled over, her cough louder than the thunder outside. The sky was darker now. The sun

was setting, and the clouds rolling in looked more threatening than before. Clay knocked over a trash can backing out of the driveway and sped down the street, nearly hydroplaning as he left.

Amethyst brought the baby inside. She set it down on the couch between our cats, who hissed at it before jumping away to find a quieter corner of the house. I wanted to know if Clay seemed sick when they spoke, how close they came to each other, whether or not he breathed directly into her face. Of course he did, Amethyst said.

I frantically paced around, wiping down counters no one had touched, popping Vitamin C pills, and forcing Amethyst to drink droplets of liquid zinc. I even sprayed the baby with Lysol whenever Amethyst wasn't looking. The aerosol made the baby cough, which stopped it from crying, but made me feel worse about having it inside. Amethyst picked it up and hushed: there, there, Olivia, she said, remembering the baby’s name.

I need to relax, she told me. What's done is done with regards to particle droplets. She suggested I go back to my book, which I could never do under present circumstances—I’d been reading a pop history book on the Black Plague, mostly to cheer myself up, figuring that the coronavirus couldn't get much worse than things were in the Middle Ages. It seems I wasn't the only one with this idea either, as the book I received from Amazon was print-on-demand, the pages the quality of printer paper, the words smeared across irregular margins. The binding fell apart the more I read. The content was interesting, but hardly believable—I suspected the details were punched up to the fact that not many uncombed sources remained from that time, and most people who caught the plague couldn't read, much less write, so the nobility who were unlucky enough to contract the illness had the most reliable accounts of the effects on the body (the fever and chills, festering wounds, and exhaustion) and since the nobility exclusively wrote about

themselves and their own symptoms, there was a risk of the subject being quite boring. I'd also reached a lull in the text where a predictable pattern had emerged: every few years, the plague would roll into town and kill a few hundred before leaving. A new statue would be erected, a newer, different group of Jews would be blamed. Rituals would commence and life would return before the process repeated. Patterns are fine to discover in daily life and even encouraged. But when discovered elsewhere, like in the book I was reading, they produce a dangerous sense of ennui and crush the spirit. This morbid feeling, plus the baby’s arrival, meant I couldn’t read. I sat on the couch and waited for the storm to pass, no longer enjoying anything.

Amethyst put Olivia to sleep in between the pillows on our bed. I tried calling Clay, but his phone was off, or there was no reception in the area of the hospital he was at, perhaps the morgue. I told Amethyst what I thought would happen next:

They'd send Clay and Grace home with instructions to return as needed, as there wasn't much else they could do when someone had Covid. But that outcome was unlikely, given that they've been gone so long. Rather, the doctors were probably intubating his wife as we spoke, snaking a ribbed plastic tube down her throat to help pump oxygen into her lungs and control the phlegm that filled her insides. Yet, if this were true, Clay himself would still likely be home by now, so it was possible that there weren't enough beds or ventilators at the hospital. He might have been bribing a nurse to triage one of the older patients and take their warm body to the refrigerated trucks in order to make more space for his wife. As I said this last bit, I noticed a tear ran down the side of Amethyst’s face. I'd forgotten we'd been exposed to the virus ourselves. This could be our future.

When Clay eventually came home, it was without his wife. For the first few hours, he didn't bother collecting his baby. It wasn't until the middle of the night and after I'd suggested leaving Olivia in the cat shelter outside that he knocked on our door. The rain had stopped by then, but a muted lightning still ran through the sky, followed by a soft thunder.

I'm. Here. For. My. Baby, he said. His cheeks were inflamed from where he'd worn a mask and he looked like pure shit. We handed Olivia over without much fanfare and went back to sleep. I called him again the next day to check up and see how things were going, but he didn't answer. From our patio, I heard his cell phone ring in his kitchen. A few days after that, Amethyst came down with a cough. We were scared, mostly for her, of course, but from my end, I was also afraid for myself. I hadn’t developed any symptoms yet, but I was fatter than Amethyst, and in general worse shape. If the virus hit me strong, I could die.

Soon, my fear morphed into resentment and anger. Towards Clay, absolutely, but toward Amethyst, too. Both of them could be the cause of my death. And her death. Placing blame on Amethyst for her own possible death felt simple yet also complex. I was then mad at myself for how unprepared I was for death. I didn’t know the first thing about planning a funeral or balancing assets. And if I went before Amethyst, she wouldn’t even have a life insurance pittance to keep her company.

I set her up in bed for the next week and made sure she had everything necessary, like superhuman amounts of Vitamins C and D. Zinc. Allergy pills I'd heard worked for lung fluid. The right type of painkillers according to the latest studies. Cold compresses. A humidifier. I moved the TV out to the living room while she slept most of the day. I watched anime, having

given up on books, and periodically bugged my family for money. Our pantry stocks of dry food were running low, and Amethyst needed fresh fruits and vegetables to recover.

I checked my temperature every time I went to check Amethyst’s, who hovered around 101 for the better part of a week. I tested my breathing as I sat on the couch, scrolling through my phone as Death Note played on loop in the background.

The country’s death toll was rising, as was unemployment. The media speculated when things would return to normal, overpaid columnists read tea leaves by way of interpreting press releases from Government Agencies and Pharmaceutical companies. I alternated between anime and the news while my wife struggled to breathe in the bed we shared. Stories about the virus and the loss of life were so frequent and blunt, they began to feel like empty bullets shot through paper screens. Between these reports were stories that were so banal they felt almost hyperreal, stories about movie castings, woke commercials, mass shootings, and stock market fluctuations. Flotsam from a leprous culture. Between the contradictions of these two modes existed a sickness that felt more chronic than the acute shock of the pandemic. People were drowning in their own lungs and no one would help them, survivors went into debt and killed themselves. The shows I watched about Japanese highschoolers with giant tits felt more connected to reality, they moved closer to an actual arc of life than the ceaseless discharge that came out of my phone.

And it wasn't until Amethyst got sick that this even made sense to me in any tangible way. I lost my job when things went pear shaped, sure, though it was more of anticipatory consolidation move that my company never reneged on (I kept up with their stock—they were doing great, along with a host of other companies in yet another economic contradiction that made you want to rip limbs off a thing that didn't exist), but we hadn't known anyone who'd

gotten violently ill, we hadn't known anyone who died. If we didn't know better, we would have thought the pink slips and lockdown orders were edicts from the hand of God, not panicked reactions from men with small dicks and big wallets.

Then Grace died. Amethyst got better, though her stamina never fully recovered. I never got sick at all. We were so concerned with ourselves, that we forgot about Clay and his wife until he left an envelope in our shared mailbox. At first, I was scared. It was past the first of the month, and I hadn’t paid rent. We didn't have any money to pay it, but I was hoping that he might look the other way during these trying times. When I bought the I brought the envelope back to Amethyst and opened it, a tiny card fell out. It was a kind of non-funeral announcement for Grace. She died in the hospital. They planned on having a ceremony at a later date when everything was safe, much like how many people postponed their weddings.

At the bottom of the announcement were some choice words for the governor. Clay was simultaneously angry that his wife was allowed to die and that he couldn't hold a funeral for her. Whatever the case, I found it extremely tacky to include an announcement like that. He even threw a line in there about how the United States Government has never cared about the bodies and forms of its populace, language that fell borrowed from a grad school seminar and made life feel modular and transactionary.

I hung the card up on the fridge as a reminder. The cardstock was nice and I liked the floral design. Amethyst wanted it taken down right away. Though she was past Death's doorstep, she still carried a cough, along with a core of resentment for Clay and his baby. He shouldn't have come to our door at all, and if he needed to, then he should have brought a mask. Not to

mention, she knew that they had people over back when Grace was alive, we heard their backyard parties from our bedrooms. She saw them go out and about. They had it coming.

I saw things differently and naturally felt for the guy, but then again I hadn't caught the virus from him. The suggestion that I’d even remotely take his side over my wife's was so close to a betrayal on my part that it put a strain on our marriage that extended into February, where I found myself still sleeping on the couch with three months of rent now past due.

Clay hadn't said anything about our missed checks, and I certainly wasn't going to bring it up first. He kept the gas on, though. This meant he was still alive and thinking about us, or that he had the bill on auto-withdraw and our days were numbered. I discovered an old credit card of my parents still saved on my computer, and figured if we ordered meager amounts of food at the right time, our purchases would go unnoticed. This turned out to be true, but regrettably I had nothing to tip the masked and gloved men who brought the bags of groceries to our door.

In March, I got a job as an IT guy at a charter school. Things were looking up. When things went well in my personal life, it was amazing how much I could tune out the rest of the world. I started planning trips we could take in the summer, and even bought new clothes. Amethyst suggested I proactively reach out to Clay and let him know we would soon start filling our backlog of rent. I hated eating crow like that, but she had a point. We could avoid a possible eviction summons if I was quick about it. The situation felt too delicate for a phone call, and I’d never offered any formal condolences for his wife. Plus, what the hell. My fresh spirits got me in the mood to chat.

I walked out our front and gate around to his porch. There were two leaflets looped around his door handle, one for cable and another for personal loans. They were old and crinkled, he must not have bothered to take them off.

No answer at the door. I called, but no answer there, either. His car was in the driveway, an old Tacoma with cheap aftermarket mods and marathon stickers on the back windshield. He must be home. It occurred to me that he might be dead, either from the virus or suicide. He could have taken the baby out with him, or sentenced it to starve. I walked to the side of the house where there was a small patio with a glass door. I could see through the glass or break in if I needed to.

I didn't, it turned out. The door was open. Inside, the furnishings of a psychopath. Dirty diapers piled in the corner, rotted egg rolls in takeout containers, what I assumed were cum rags draped across mountains of porno DVDs, a half-assed stockpile of baby formula.

I didn't call out his name. Why? Who knows. Maybe I already figured him dead, not wanting to imagine that I had to pay rent to a man who lived like this.

I found him in the spare room passed out on the floor, a fact I confirmed with a palm to his nostrils. The baby slept on a rug draped over liquor bottles, spit up on both their shirts. In the corner sat welding tools, and through the waste and disgust I smelled the faint scent of smoke and metal. An odd structure that looked like a helmet for a large elephant was next to it. I didn't wake him.

I told Amethyst what I'd found. She was shocked and saddened, mostly for the baby. We should call Child Welfare Services, she said. Sure, but who's to say anyone would have come? The government was falling to shambles in real time. This wasn’t true, the government was still

operating in full force, but it was my excuse for not calling. I didn't want anyone to know I'd broken in.

Three days passed, and I discovered the purpose of the welding tools I found in Clay’s room. He outfitted his pickup truck to look something like a gladiator. Spikes on the tires, a gunmetal sheet over the hood, a barricade on the doors. He'd driven it downtown and into the side of the state capitol building.

His modifications helped a bit, but he still mangled his truck while barely taking out a few bricks on a section that had been under construction anyway. He was armed to the teeth and fired indiscriminately outside, taking out a few windows and the shoulder of a State Senator’s minor aide before he was domed by a cop. The baby in the passenger seat later died at the hospital from nonspecific trauma.

Clay left a manifesto behind. The news posted snippets of it. It was filled with the same type of stuff he wrote on the funeral announcement, except more angry and less political. From the little I read, it was quite beautiful. A few days later, the world moved on and Clay disappeared from the news, his only lasting legacy being concrete vehicle barriers they put in front of all state government buildings. But they still said these were for ISIS.

The bank took over Clay’s house and kicked us out. The good news was we didn't need to pay any missed rent, and our debts were forgiven. With my new job, we quickly found a new place. When I told people who our old landlord was, they either didn't know his name or had a fuzzy memory of the event. One man asked me not to speak to him again.

As for me and Amethyst, we talked about what happened a little bit at first, but not much. There was a mutual understanding, I think, about why Clay did what he did, and those reasons were so deep and so obvious that words couldn't touch them. One thing we did talk about often since the incident, and even directly referenced, was the baby, Olivia. It convinced us that we didn't want a child.