Justine, the name



The man next door to me in Baltimore was a myopic sot, with hair the color of ash. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, even though I had no reason to feel that way.  He must have been about 50. However with those boozy types you can never tell for certain.  He decidedly lived alone, and dressed the part of a well-worn, unsuccessful bachelor – old tennis shoes, a rumpled pair of chinos, stretched-out sweater.  To the best of my knowledge he had no friends or family.

Every once and a while we would pass each other in the hall. It was here that we’d exchange a polite nod or a glance of recognition. His bottles from the liquor store would clink together in a brown grocery bag.  He stank of Clubman styling gel and cheap cologne. The two of us never spoke.

The walls separating our two rooms in the boarding house were paper-thin, and so the odors and sounds of his solitary existence had a way of seeping into my squalid quarters, where they would sometimes keep me company for hours at a time.  I used to jot down a number of whimsical observations in small moleskin notebook:

Hark! The man next door is splashing around in the bathtub this morning, humming a Cole Porter tune.

My goodness!  He must use Lemon Pledge to clean his tabletops and wooden surface areas. I ought to do the same.

Cherry Cordial?  Danish Gold?  What other blends of tobacco might TMND enjoy?  Christmas is just around the corner.

Note. TMND asleep on couch… gentle snores… TV tuned to channel sixteen.

Steak and potatoes for supper.  I hope he doesn’t burn his potato this time.

TMND speaks her name again.  Third time this afternoon, the miserable bastard.

Justine. It could be any part of the day, it didn’t matter.  There were the times Justine was a longing sigh, there were times she was a resounding proclamation made by the man next door.  He’d curse her name.  He’d cradle it softly between his lips.  Sometimes he’d shout it.  Other times it was an almost inaudible whimper.  Justine, a hiss of hot breath through clenched teeth.  Justine, a sacred hymn as he paced around his tiny living room.  Justine, a soothing chant at sunrise or just after dark.

For hours at a time I’d listen to the way the man next door would say her name and I would close my eyes and try to imagine her. Some days Justine was a cowgirl, on others a librarian or a bookkeeper.  Sometimes she smoked Marlboro Lights at a diner in Topeka, Kansas.  Other times she was a Jehovah’s Witness from the Hudson Valley.  She’d have long auburn hair and skin the color of cactus milk one minute and the very next her hair would lighten and her skin darken.  On good days Justine would laugh and listen to the Beatles.  On bad days she’d make a Salisbury steak TV dinner and lay in bed, watching old reruns on Nick-At-Night.  When she was scared she’d ask me to gently stroke her forehead with the back of my hand.

I suppose that the hardest thing with Justine was knowing how things would end and where I’d end up.  After a while it became too much to bear. I could no longer sleep at night. I started drinking Cisco wine. Eventually, I stopped coming home all together and have since stayed the fuck away from boarding houses in Baltimore.

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