OK Tires

When I was 20 years old, I moved back to my home town of Las Vegas from Albuquerque. I’d spent two and half years in the big city of Albuquerque, determined to make my own way. I’d done everything from working at McDonalds, to waiting tables, to selling vacuum cleaners, to tech support. I’d learned a great deal about the way the world works — including the fact that a formal education was not something I needed — it was something I wanted.

I moved back to do something I said I’d never do: attend my home-town college, where my father had taught for 20 years. That was the reason I moved to Albuquerque in the first place — to attend the biggest college in the state. But I quickly found that classes with two hundred students were not a forum that inspired debate. I’d also met a girl that had just moved to my home town.

I loaded all of my possessions into my car, and drove up just before Christmas. On that drive, Interstate 25 climbs almost two thousand feet, up onto the high plains. A blizzard struck after Santa Fe. I crept along at half speed through Glorietta pass until I hit what turned out to be a ski. The upturned tip of the ski sliced right through two of my tires. I pulled over, right behind a poorly packed pickup truck. The occupants of this truck had pulled over to look for a ski that had fallen out of the back. I was naive enough to ask them for money to replace the tires, since it was clearly their fault. At least they gave me a ride into town.

The next day, after fetching the car, I looked for apartments. One of the benefits of the move was cheaper rents, but I was still surprised at how cheap some apartments were. I liked the apartment in the OK Tires building. The tire shop had long been out of business, and now the building was in foreclosure. It was managed by a local radio personality who worked at the bank as an account manager in order to make ends meet. He was a nice guy, but I didn’t understand how little interest he had in the building or its tenants.

There were six apartments — five one-room units with a single window overlooking Grand Avenue, and a larger unit on the corner with a separate bedroom and bay windows that overlooked a quieter side street. All six were on the second floor, above the old tire shop. I took the one-room unit next to the larger corner unit.

Three other units were occupied — two by out-patients from the state mental institution, and one by a chronic alcoholic. I met Elaine first. She was living in the large corner unit. She had a terrible, sickly complexion. She was nice but clearly mentally ill. Not long after I moved in, she disappeared. No one, including the building manager, knew where she went.

The alcoholic was probably in his late fifties, and was likable, stylish and a bit flamboyant. He was dark and slim, and wore a thin mustache. His hair was jet-black — probably dyed — and always impeccably waxed and combed. He dressed nicely, in 70s era fashions, and drove a huge yellow Cadillac. It was easy to imagine him salsa dancing when he was younger. His apartment was two doors down from mine, but he wasn’t home often. He went by the name “Vidal”, and even though he was a drunk, he was still pursued by women at the bar.

At the far end, next to the staircase, was another out-patient. It wasn’t possible to have a normal conversation with him, but I spoke with him long enough to get his name: Marvin Wormke. The others were harmless, but Marvin made me nervous. He was had a harsh glare, and gave no indication of emotion. He was a big, solidly-built man with a square, beefy face and short light brown hair. He had huge hands and feet, and walked as though it was trying to break the floor.

I discovered that the locks on the doors were so old and worn that they could be opened by any key that would fit. I also learned from the manager that, after he had to pay to have Elaine’s possessions carted off, he would not look for any new tenants. He might have felt bad that he was unwilling or unable to have any maintenance done because he ignoring all of my requests. One day I dropped in to pay my rent and asked about the rent for larger apartment. He smiled and winked at me, and said, “I don’t care what happens down there.” I moved that day.

Much to my surprise, Marvin turned out to have a girlfriend. She was about forty five, nice, and pretty. She was also an out-patient from the hospital, but she was far less ill than Marvin. We sometimes chatted in the hall or on the street. She had a grown daughter that lived in town and they were very close. She moved in with Marvin not long afterwards.

In the meanwhile I was seeing Jessica, the girl I met before I moved back. She worked at the state mental institution as a dietitian, and was initially optimistic and charmed by the town. She was living in a very cute cottage south of town, but was very tight with money and lamented the rent constantly despite the fact that it was a tiny fraction of her salary. That was one of many warning signs, but I hadn’t yet learned how to be without a girlfriend, and chose to ignore them.

I was happy at school. The classes were small, the professors were energetic and engaging, and the tuition was affordable. My parents helped me with the cost of school, but didn’t pay for everything. I sold my car to pay for school, but still had to pay my rent. I was taking an “overload” — more classes than are generally allowed — so I didn’t have time to work very much. I took a part-time job as the secretary at the church my family attended. The pay was $200 a month, but the hours were flexible and I didn’t mind typing up sermons and bulletins.

But money was still too tight for me to get by. So when Jessica suggested that we split the rent now that I had a bigger apartment, I agreed. At first it was fine, but she was relentlessly ambitious and judgmental. She was either at work, at class, exercising, or reading medical textbooks. She didn’t allow herself to relax, and had no patience for people who did.

One night Marvin’s girlfriend Penny knocked on our door. She tearfully told me that Marvin had kicked her out and she needed an apartment. She was under the impression that I either managed or owned the building. She told me that paying the rent was no problem, and that it would just be temporary because the only reason Marvin had kicked her out was because he had stopped taking his medication. I told her that, considering her situation, I’d let her have an apartment for half the normal rent. I opened the apartment that I’d originally rented and gave her the key.

I’d regularly find Vidal on the stairs, too drunk to climb them. He’d greet me warmly, with a wobbly hug. He’d usually look into my eyes and say, “You know what?” Then he’d pull me close and whisper his secret to me. “I’m drunk!” Then he’d giggle, and grab my arm for support. I was glad to help him, both because I liked him, and because I worried that he’d make it up the stairs and then fall all the way down. If I wasn’t in a hurry I’d sometimes sit in his leather chair and visit with him until he fell asleep.

Marvin’s behavior was clearly different. He was more menacing, and constantly kicked things. Every twenty steps or so, he’d stop and kick a wall, a curb, or a car. Jessica worried about her car, but never expressed any concern for her safety or anyone else’s. Penny grew visibly more distraught. Jessica hated it, but I’d sometimes invite her in and let her talk. Marvin was, she said, the love of her life, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to go on living without him. I dismissed this, and reminded her of her daughter. Her face would soften, but not for long.

Jessica was becoming more and more problematic. She’d made a very good impression on my parents, and we were frequently invited to dinner, but at the last moment she’d get hysterical and I’d have to cancel. Her behavior was exacerbated by her eating disorder. It wasn’t unusual for me to find her in the kitchen, shaky and confused, frantically trying to open a jar of peanut butter after starving herself all day. I learned to pay close attention to how much she ate, and stopped assuming that her being a dietitian meant that she could be trusted to eat properly.

The weather turned cold, and it became clear that the manager had no intention of turning up the central heating system to compensate. The bay windows in the apartment were old and drafty. It was too cold to ride my bike, and Jessica’s sports car was terrible on icy streets. We fought daily, and her methods of winning arguments escalated to suicide threats. I lacked the experience to see the futility of the situation, and believed her when, after she calmed down, she said that this was very unusual behavior for her and that she’d be better soon.

It was usually possible to tell roughly how drunk Vidal had been the night before from the way his car was parked. He always parked in front of the door to the stairs, but sometimes half-way on the sidewalk, sometimes three feet away from the curb, and sometimes at an angle. The car had been in very good condition when I first moved in, but now each corner was dented from drunken miscalculations. There were also dents along the length the car, but only on the right side — the result of Marvin’s kicking habit.

Early that spring I left for the weekend to compete in a programming contest, and I called Jessica. She had been very unhappy, and complained constantly, so she had to mention the smell in the hallway multiple times before I took is seriously. It turned out that Penny had cut her wrists days ago. When I got back I expected the police to have questions about why a body turned up in my apartment. I also expected some emotional reaction on Marvin’s part. Neither happened. Marvin continued his stoic kicking, and the only thing people seemed to want to know was how big the blood stain was. Neither the police nor the manager ever asked me a single question.

Jessica seemed quite logical about having had someone die next door. She aspired to be a doctor, so she figured this was something she had to be clinical about. But her behavior got markedly worse. She started spending as little time in the apartment as possible. When she was there, she was either stuffing herself, or starving herself.

One night I got home from school to find her pale and confused. She was rambling about dying, and couldn’t stand up because her legs were so shaky and weak. I helped her to the car, and raced to the hospital. Once we got into the emergency room and they started pumping her full of fluids, she started asking for my parents. She told me that she wanted to see them again in case she didn’t make it. I called them, and the rushed down. We gathered around her bed, and waited for the doctor.

When the doctor came in he immediately started yelling at her. “You’re killing yourself! Don’t try to deny it — you know exactly what you’re doing. No one cuts 100% of the salt out of their diet by accident! If I see you in here again, I’m calling the police and calling it what it is — a suicide attempt!” She was humiliated, and never spoke to my parents again. She didn’t speak to me much either. She rented a small house and moved out.

Between Jessica’s half of the rent, and the half that Penny had been paying, I’d been able to get by on the $200 I made a month from the church. But now I wasn’t able to pay the rent and still have something to eat, so I moved to a cheaper apartment.

Jessica eventually left town and went back home, but not before having a few more dysfunctional relationships. I never saw Vidal again, and after a few months noticed that his car was never parked there anymore. Marvin continued to walk all over town, kicking things, for years.

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