There’s a guy living in my storage room. I noticed it about a month ago, when I went into the basement of my apartment building to drop off a box full of old Evil Dead posters I’d collected at college poster sales. Every storage room is about the size of a college dorm room, separated by rotting vertical wood panels hastily put together without any measuring tape so they only half resemble a “wall” and half resemble what would constitute a “fence.” The floors are concrete, like any good old-fashioned Milwaukee apartment building, and spider webs and dirt line the ceiling panels and wooden beams supporting the floor above.
I never kept anything important in my storage room because the door’s hinges broke the first time I opened it, so whenever I needed to store something, I had to move the door like a boulder, then place it back in front of the opening when I was finished. So when I opened the door and saw an old, brown couch resting against the concrete foundation on the other end, I wondered if maybe it was a gift from one of the other tenants. I didn’t care, really, because I wasn’t going to use all the space anyway.
I came back down a week later to store a few boxes of books that I couldn’t fit on my small bookshelf. Now the couch was complemented by an old tube TV sitting on two red milk crates and a middle-aged man lying on the couch. I set down the books next to the posters in the corner, which had been untouched, and the man glanced up.
“What’s up, dude,” he said.
I shrugged. “Not much. Just, ah … dropping some stuff off, I guess.”
He sat up on the couch and grabbed the can of Mountain Dew sitting on the floor. He looked late thirties, maybe early forties. He had gray whiskers and a short brown mullet that went down to the base of his neck. He was wearing an old gray shirt and jeans, but they looked like they’d been cleaned recently.
Still, I had to ask. “Are you a bum?”
He laughed. “No, dude. I live in two-oh-one.”
“The landlord’s place?” I’d only spoken to the landlords once, when I signed the lease. They never looked at each other, never even talked to each other while I was sitting in their kitchen reading over the lease. The old woman was tall and she stood in the kitchen noisily washing dishes, clanging every single clean plate together and it was obviously getting under the old man’s skin. He sat at the table with me, sweating, pursing his lips while I filled out my background information and agreed to not burn scented candles.
“They’re my parents,” he said.
“Oh.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets, just taking it all in. I wasn’t really mad—I hadn’t read through the full lease, so, hell, maybe there was a “deadbeat son” clause somewhere that I’d missed.
“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked. “We just got too much shit in our storage room. I didn’t even think anyone was using this, what with the door and all.”
“Oh, I don’t care,” I said. I nonchalantly took in the smell of the basement, trying to pick out any incriminating stenches that might suggest it wasn’t a good idea. Like meth, for instance. I wasn’t sure exactly what meth smelled like, but I was pretty sure it didn’t resemble the chalky scent of dusty concrete.
“Thanks, dude.” He took a sip of his Dew. “Appreciate it. The parents, dude, they fight all the goddamn time. Can’t stand it.”
I came back down three days later to drop off another box of miscellaneous junk. Really, I mostly just wanted to check on my new tenant and see if any other new pieces of furniture had arrived. I was not disappointed. Sitting on the concrete floor next to the tube TV was a black Sega Genesis. The guy was sitting up on the couch, mashing the buttons of the black controller while a 16-bit character jumped around on screen, punching wildly at oncoming monster-looking foes. I recognized the game, and to be honest I was pretty disgusted.
“Are you seriously playing Altered Beast?” I asked him, setting down the box of junk.
“Course,” he muttered, not taking his eyes off the screen. His mouth hung open a little bit when he played and I could see that, despite what the half-dozen cans of Dew laying around might suggest, he had shiny white teeth. What a bastard, I thought. I brushed my teeth twice a day, never drank soda and my teeth were still a shade darker than yellow.
Altered Beast came with the Sega Genesis in the early 90’s and it was an awful video game, even by those early 16-bit standards. I remembered playing it, starting the game as a poorly drawn half-naked man who could transform into a poorly drawn half-naked monster, all while fighting undead creatures that slowly made their way across the TV screen with a purpose only the game’s programmers could possibly understand.
“Altered Beast gets a bad rap,” the guy said. “But it was always, at its core, man’s struggle with his inner wolf.”
Words escaped me. All I could think was this guy probably dropped out of college.
“It’s existential,” the guy continued. “You know what I mean? I mean, like, he’s trying to find himself, but he’s more comfortable transforming into a monster when he’s in danger. He can’t trust his human side to get the job done.”
All right, so college was a little off. The guy probably dropped out of high school right around the time his English class started reading Jean-Paul Sartre. Probably so he could go home and play Altered Beast.
“You know, I hear you sometimes on my days off,” I say. “I can hear the TV through my floor.”
“Sorry man … I’ll keep it down,” he said, still not taking his eyes off the game.
“Oh no, don’t worry about it. I was just wondering where you worked that you always got so much time off.”
“I don’t work.”
“How do you survive?”
He shrugged. “I’ve got an allowance.”
“How do you get around?”
“I’ve got a bike.” He paused the game so he could take a sip of his soda. Ont he screen, three undead creatures were slowly descending upon the heroic Golden Werewolf. “And before you ask, yes, I do have a girlfriend.”
I tried not to imagine the woman romantically involved with him, but she appeared anyway: chubby, sagging smoker’s face, wild blonde hair hanging over her shoulders like vintage Sammy Hagar.
The floorboards above the basement hallway creaked under the pressure of added weight, someone walking toward the front door of the building. The guy glanced up. “Listen,” he said. “Don’t tell my parents I’m down here.”
“If they ask, just tell them you see me outside a lot. They don’t like to go outside.” He took another sip of his soda, unpausing the game and making short work of the three undead creatures with three powerful kicks from the Golden Werewolf. “Shit, they don’t like much of anything.”
“The less I know, the better,” I told him.
The next morning, my day off, I went downstairs early to play Altered Beast and realized the guy wasn’t just hiding out; he was sleeping there, too. He was laying on the couch, his feet hanging over the armrest, his body tucked in by a thin brown wool blanket.
He looked like a teenager, his mouth hanging open in sleep. I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell he did all day when he wasn’t playing video games. I knew he went outside to smoke cigarettes, usually lighting them up in the foyer where the mailboxes were and leaving a semi-permanent stench. Occasionally, his girlfriend must have stopped by. Occasionally, he probably went up to his parents’ place to collect his allowance and use the bathroom, maybe make a sandwich or something. I realized I’d been working fifty-hour weeks for so long that the very idea of casual activities eluded me.
“Aren’t you afraid of spiders?” I asked him later in the afternoon. I was careful not to disturb his sleeping pattern of eleven p.m. to ten a.m. In return, he was gracious enough to offer me a warm Mountain Dew, a seat on the couch and a controller. He put in NHL Hockey and we commenced playing an even more violent version of Canada’s beloved pastime than existed in real life.
“Course,” he said, finishing me off with one more buzzer-beating slapshot. The final score was 14 to 13. He turned off the system and grabbed a fresh Dew from the cardboard case next to the TV. Unrefrigerated. He flipped the metal knob on the TV to an NBC newscast. All day, they had the news with the same three or four stories and the same weather report.
“You know,” I said, “if you had a job, you could probably get your own place. These apartment buildings in this neighborhood are insanely cheap.”
The guy shrugged. “I had job. I had my own place. Back during the last recession. You know what happened? I lost it all, just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Just so the CEO could keep his fat eight-figure paycheck.”
“Well,” I said. “There’s other jobs, you know.”
“Fucking wonderful,” the guy said. He extended his arms to the cobweb-infested ceiling. “Thank you, Capitalism! I’m sorry for daring to speak ill of thee! Please, embrace me again in your loving arms and I’ll be a good little worker!”
I grabbed another Dew, slightly pissed. I liked the system we had. I liked the fact that I was getting paid to draw vaginas. Did it get a little repetitive sometimes? Of course. Was it my dream to sketch out sex scenes between two cartoon characters? No. But them’s the breaks. Online porn was—and always will be—big business. And the first thing I learned out of art school was that cartoon porn had a carved out a nice little niche in the porn market, and there was plenty of opportunity to compete with the Japanese companies. All I had to do was sit at a desk and animate the transitions between scenes. Then the director approved them and sent them to Korea for lower-paid artists to fill in the animation.
Sure, it was scary seeing the latest shareholder reports, but it wasn’t really my fault if the company lost money. “You probably got a severance package. Probably got to stay on Unemployment for awhile.”
“Enough time to find another job, that’s what I’m saying.”
The guy sat up and changed to the channel to Judge Judy. “You know where my last job is right now? India, dude. All the engineering jobs are going over there. Not much point in finding another job when you know they’re eventually gonna make you compete with a bastard who’s more than happy to work for a dollar a day.”
“But is staying down here really any better?” I asked.
“You ever heard my parents fight? It’s like World War Three, dude.”
I tried to avoid him for awhile after the people in my dreams started morphing into tigers, bears, and golden werewolves. His parents came to my door a week or so after that, standing in that hunched-over way old couples seem to do together. The woman was smiling the same smile she wore every time I saw her cleaning the hallway walls, scrubbing off whatever dirt had collected over the course of a few days. The man never smiled. His mouth sat between deep wrinkles while the pale skin of his jowls continued to slip downward over his jaw line.
They both smelled like bacon.
“We don’t mean to intrude,” the mom said from the other side of the doorway.
“Oh no, don’t worry,” I said. I thought the jig was up. They’d made a mistake on my rent—it wasn’t supposed to be so low. I knew it. I just knew it was too good to be true.
“We were wondering if you’ve seen our son around,” said the dad.
“Oh.” I could hear the low bass hum of the TV below my feet. Every punch and kick from the video game sounded like a heartbeat that reverberated through the soles of my bare feet. This poor couple probably had no idea their son was going to leach off them until the day they died.
The mom continued smiling. The dad just stared up at me. Two undead creatures who had begun to look like each other, tiny heads and thinning white hair with white hairs sneaking out of their ears. Neither of them could hear the low hum of the TV below, probably hadn’t been down to the basement in years. Maybe they called down to him sometimes, expecting a response.
“We’re concerned, is all,” the mom finally said.
“I saw him outside the other day,” I said. I wonder if they even knew if the guy smoked. How many secrets could a middle-aged guy living with his parents possibly keep?
“If you see him, let us know,” the dad said. “Sorry to disturb you.” He turned and began walking very slowly back down the hall.
“Please,” the mom said. She probably couldn’t even feel the vibrations coming up through the carpet and thudding against the dulled pads of her feet. “You let us know if you see him. Tell him he needs to come home and stay there.”
“Okay,” I said.
I relayed all this to the guy when I saw him later in the week and he just nodded. “Not bad,” he said. “They mean well, really, but they’re just so goddamned annoying now. When they’re not fighting each other, they pick fights with me yelling at me to get a new job. But I’m out. I’m just fucking out, dude. I spent six years training for a job that doesn’t even exist in this country anymore. That’s it for me. You wanna play some Altered Beast?”
“Yeah,” I said.
The next Monday, the bosses called a bunch of people into conference room A and a bunch of people into conference room B. My buddy Frank sitting in the next cubicle over got called into B he gave me a somber nod as he passed. When we were all in conference room A, our manager told us we weren’t being downsized, but everyone in B was. We’d have to pick up the slack. Frank drew the penises and now I would be drawing them in addition to my regular weekly load of vaginas.
I know it’s crazy, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that Frank had just been randomly chosen. He wasn’t any different than me. He even kissed up a little more.
I went home and walked downstairs into the storage room and sat on the couch with a Dew. The guy was playing Altered Beast and I watched him for awhile, all of a sudden feeling very safe inside this concrete bunker.