Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- The Conclusion

At last, the conclusion to my epic miniseries is here. In Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- Part I, I wrote about how I came to rent the top floor of Miss McCorkle's Victorian home in Charleston, S.C. Part II thickened the plot, with tales of jello wrestlers and a scary lizard and how I rebelliously moved my own furniture into the furnished apartment--and upended her sofa in the process. (She was not pleased.) And now, the infamous 'eh conditionuh' incident and its aftermath. 

This is what Miss McCorkle's original AC unit looked like
It was late June, 1982. The stagnant days were languid and long drawn out. The nights were still and muggy, except after the occasional thunderstorm. The window unit eh conditionuh (Miss McCorkle's pronunciation) hummed in the living room window, barely cooling the room and doing nothing at all for the bedroom. And so, I had a choice: Sleep in the living room near the air conditioner (a window unit), on one of Miss McCorkle’s soufflĂ© mattresses, or lie awake sweating on my firm mattress in the bedroom, far from the air conditioner.

For two weeks, I slept no more than a few hours a night. Finally, I’d had enough. I moved the air conditioning unit out of the living room window and into the bedroom.

I slept blissfully for three nights. And then, late on a Friday afternoon, I was rushing around the apartment, packing for a trip to Wilmington. I was anxious to get going, as the radio weatherman had said to expect an early evening 'summer squall.' It had been such a hot day that, even with the air conditioner running at full capacity in the bedroom, sweat beads clung to my upper lip. And so, I removed all my clothes and continued my frenetic packing, too busy to notice rain beginning to tap against the McCorkle roof. Suddenly, the shutters on either side of the bedroom window began to bang against the air conditioner unit. The rain became a torrent. I heard lightning in the distance once, then again, closer.

And then: a knock on my door. "Mr. Mahtin!"

"Yes?" Being buck naked, I didn't open the door.

"You got to move dat eh conditionuh! My shutters are bangin' against it! And besides, da bedroom, it ain’t grounded proper. You could start a fire, don’t you know!"

As if to make a bad situation worse, the wooden shutters crashed against the air conditioner again, this time even more violently.

"Okay, okay," I said. "I'll take care of it right now." I ran to the window and looked out. Fortunately the shutters were still intact. But the sky was black, the rain falling almost at an angle now, pushed by what seemed like tornado-force winds. I had no choice. I had to pull that air conditioner in now, before one more bang of the shutters, never mind the lightning crashing here and there. I placed one hand firmly on the air conditioning unit and with the other, I tried to push up the window. 

It didn’t budge.

Something Falling From the Sky

When I look back on what happened next, for some reason I always see it in my mind’s eye from an omniscient point of view. I see myself as this nude young man struggling to open a stuck window. I see this cranky old woman in the window directly below, gazing out at the storm, absent-mindedly towel-drying a dish. And then, the window that the nude young man is struggling with unexpectedly flings open. The air conditioner leaps out of the window and plunges to the driveway below, falling directly in front of the old woman’s disbelieving eyes. The nude young man stands at the upstairs open window, with only the air conditioner's severed electrical cord in his hand. The eh conditionuh lies in a dozen pieces on the driveway below, having barely missed the old woman’s Nova. Lightning strikes again, and the old woman, still standing at her window, shrieks, "Oh my God, my eh conditionuh!" Her plaintive wail travels straight up, through the rain and wind, into the nude young man’s ears and into his addled brain, where he—where I—can still hear it now.

I threw on some clothes and ran outside to gather the wreckage from the driveway. Hurriedly, I scooped up the pieces of debris and hauled them up the back steps into my apartment, making several trips. By the time I finished my soaked clothes, cold and heavy, clung to my body, and on one of the hottest days I’d ever experienced, I shivered.

I removed my wet clothes, threw them in the bathtub, and changed into a T-shirt and jeans. And then came the inevitable knocking on my door. I opened it knowing what I’d find, and I was not disappointment. There stood Miss McCorkle, in the throes of a full-blown hissy fit. 

“Now look what you done!” she raged. “You’re gonna pay me for dat eh conditionuh! Why did you have to go and move it in da first place? You shoulda left it where it was, now look what you done!”

She continued her harangue for what felt like 20 minutes but was probably only three or four. As Miss McCorkle screamed, she clenched and unclenched bony, spotted, blue-veined fists. I stepped back as she edged toward me, the vein in her neck bulging. She jerked her left hand upward and then stopped it, as if she had started to strike me and then pulled back. Or maybe she was about to have a stroke. I tried to focus on what she was saying. “You da worst tenant I ever had!” she screamed. “Pushin’ my sofa on its side, puttin’ a bed in da livin’ room, movin’ my eh conditionuh without askin’ me…oh my God, my eh conditionuh!”

I apologized profusely and promised to replace the air conditioner as soon as I could. Miss McCorkle’s shoulders, which had been elevated almost up to her ears, dropped slightly. She studied me as if I were in a police line-up and wasn’t quite sure if I was the one who had robbed her at gunpoint or not. “I shouldn’ta never let this apartment to you! Never!”

She continued to glare at me, awaiting my response. All I could say was, “I’m sorry.” She lingered for a few seconds longer before letting out a sigh of disgust, then turned around so forcefully that she almost lost her balance. Instinctively I reached out to catch her. Without looking back she slapped my hand away. As she turned to go, Miss McCorkle slammed my door behind her with shocking force. It was as if she had waited her entire life to slam that door. Minutes later, the squall had moved on, and in the silence it left behind, I heard Miss McCorkle's sister downstairs, crying.

Miss McCorkle: "I Should Know Better"

The next week, I found a used air conditioner window unit in excellent condition for $200. I'd nearly depleted my savings during my move to Charleston, and $200 was about all that remained. I installed the air conditioner in the living room window, where its predecessor had lived. To my delight, this unit was a vast improvement over the earlier one. It cooled not only the living room but the bedroom, too. I figured that was that. I was wrong. Knock knock knock. “Mr. Mahtin!”


"That eh conditionuh you bought is used!" Miss McCorkle said.

"But it's a lot newer than the one I broke, and it works much better," I replied.

"It won't do," she insisted. And for weeks after, she slipped under my door newspaper ads promoting new air conditioners for $400 or more. I ignored them. Eventually the ads stopped. Winter came and went, and I decided to move to another apartment. I gave Miss McCorkle 30 days notice. She complained once more about the eh conditionuh. I gave her a little extra money to try and soothe her. She took it but said I still owed her a new air conditioner. “People like you,” she said, pointing a skeletal index finger at me, “dey always try to take advantage of people like me. I guess I should know better,” she said, with a defeated shrug.

Seven Years Later

Seven years passed. In spring 1989, when Nick and I were living together in San Francisco, we returned to Charleston to attend the wedding of a former co-worker of mine. It was wonderful to see my old colleagues again. Gilbert hadn't changed much, though after Indira Gandhi's assassination, he had changed his phone book listing to Cory Aquino.

One afternoon, out for a walk, I found myself standing outside McCorkleville. I felt a drop of water on my hand and looked up; the air conditioner I had bought was still in the upstairs window, humming. I scanned the area for signs of my former landlady's continued existence. I didn't see her Nova, but I spotted a patch of pink impatiens growing out of the sidewalk in front of the house.

Overcome with curiosity, I rang the doorbell. A minute passed without an answer. I was about to press the buzzer again when the curtains on the front door window parted and revealed the familiar McCorkle face, gray eyes peering through square-frame glasses, her mouth forming its familiar 'o' shape, her rouge still three shades too dark.

The door creaked open, and before I could speak, she said, "Come in, come in," as if I had been keeping her waiting. As I entered her parlor, I realized I'd only been invited in this room once, during our first meeting. The same World War II-vintage fan whirred in its corner, stirring dust. The same tea set was untouched on the coffee table. The same doilies decorated the same tabletops. It appeared as if nothing had changed. I smelled potatoes boiling.

"You da fella used to live upstairs?" she asked, gesturing for me to sit. I took the chair she pointed to.
I said yes. "Where you been?," she wondered.

"San Francisco."

"San Francisco? Oohhhh," she replied, her mouth forming the McCorkle 'o' shape again. "I heard you don't have bugs dere."

Well, yes we do, I replied. “But we don't have palmetto bugs," I added. My mind flashed back to those hideous, huge, flying cockroaches that I’d inevitably encounter after dark on Charleston streets during the muggy season.

She squinted through her glasses at me, as if trying to put me into focus. “You married?”

“Well, no,” I said. “But I’m in a relationship.”

“Yeah,” she replied vaguely.

I asked if she still rented the upstairs. "A young man lives up dere now. He works at da Mills House," she added, rolling her eyes, in what I believe was disapproval of that high-priced hotel a few blocks away.

"What does he do?"

"He's the hostess," she said, matter-of-factly. "He works all hours of da night, don't you know. I guess he makes lots of money. He's always wearin' black pants and a white shirt and black tie." Miss McCorkle is still renting to gay men, I concluded. "What you doin’ out dere in San Francisco?" she wondered, folding her arms across her chest.

"I work for a business newspaper," I replied. "I write about computers and..."

A look of alarm suddenly spread across Miss McCorkle’s face. "A newspaper?" she asked, sitting up in her chair. "You used to write for da News & Courier?"

I nodded slowly. Was she now just recognizing me? Had she invited someone into her parlor even though she wasn't sure who it was?

"And…you da one dat wrote dat article about dose jello wrestlin' girls?"

I nodded again, a sense of dread overwhelming me.

"And you..." I squirmed in my chair, for I knew what was coming. I knew that as long as Miss McCorkle was alive, we would never be friends, no matter what I said or did. I knew this was one elderly Southern lady I would never charm, and how I loved to charm them, as they so often charmed me. I knew that my time in McCorkleville, however idyllic it had been at times, would always be a reminder of my foolish, headstrong youth, a landmark to reference in the years to come of how I once thought the world belonged to people like me, who were young and ambitious and full of hope, and not to people like Miss McCorkle, who was old and defeated and without hope. Now, in my middle years, I knew the truth: that the world belongs to no one, and that the young and the old and the in-between, we all just manage to live in it the best we can, until we don't live in it anymore.

"You," Miss McCorkle continued, rising in her seat and pointing her skeletal index finger at me one last time, "you da one who broke my eh conditionuh!"

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  1. I can hear her voice. I love this, Jim. Thanks for continuing to share your story.

  2. Great story, although the memories are not so wonderful. But makes for interesting reading!

    1. True, some of the memories were a bit painful (for Miss McCorkle as well as for me). But I treasure them nonetheless.

  3. Oh, this is priceless. You are forever judged by that dang a/c. You could win the Nobel Prize and all she'd remember is that a/c. And the jello girls.

    And I take it back, instead of a movie, it should be a sitcom for the WB. John Ritter could have played you. Well, you know, if he were alive and all that.

    1. Thanks JuJu. But maybe instead of John Ritter, how about Matt Damon? (I can dream, can't I?)

  4. I think you've found your niche: epic miniseries writer. Can we have another one, please?

    And I would totally pick Matt Damon to play you in the movie version.

  5. Jim,
    It doesn't seem like a week since the last installment and I was so excited to find this one! I started off reading slowly, savoring each word and moment but...when I got to the last paragraph I found myself rushing through for some reason thinking Miss McCorkle was going to thank you for the eh conditionuh. I had to slow myself down to absorb each delightful word.

    Maybe someone even more handsome than Matt Damon, perhaps Omar Sharif?

    1. Thanks Colleen. Not sure about Omar Sharif, however. I tried growing a moustache once. It was an epic failure.

    2. Oh well! By the way how did she know the new eh conditionuh was not brand new? Was she a spy on the side?

    3. Spy is a grandiose term. More like snoop. I suspected she would sometimes go into my apartment while I was away.

  6. Awesome Jim! I have enjoyed this series and laughed out loud many times! You are on to something little brother! I just bet know you have many more adventures to share.

    1. You know that's right, sis! Thanks for laughing out loud. I love to make people do that intentionally, though I think I also do it unintentionally...