The Case of the Missing Padlock
Yesterday morning at 8 a.m. construction started in the apartment across the hall from us — the rent-stabilized one my landlord had successfully evicted an 18-year tenant from the week before, so that his son could move in (remains to be seen). And by construction I mean pulling up floors, knocking out cabinets, and general banging that was so loud and disruptive I couldn’t help but laugh as I complained about it.
A few minutes later I heard my landlord talking in the hall and then banging on our apartment door. At this point Dustin was in the shower and I was in bed eating oatmeal or something, in my pajamas. The night before I found a note he left on our door letting me know I forgot to include the agreed-upon $20 for our monthly gas payment in my rent. Whoops. I had no cash on me so I took down the note and planned to go to the ATM the next day. I’d also read a note he left on our building door saying that SOMEONE had stolen the padlock that he put on the door leading down to the basement. The basement he locks so that no one can go in the backyard. The basement where the circuit breakers are. The basement where we keep a bunch of our belongings because this was always totally acceptable until he put a padlock on the basement and gave the spare key to the elderly lady upstairs, in case we need to, say, escape in a fire or if she needs to let in National Grid to read the gas meters. So I knew he was showing up to either demand $20 or ask us if we knew where the padlock was — neither of which I really felt were worth putting pants and a bra on for. I froze in bed, spoon in midair, but didn’t get up. He banged again and instinctively I shouted, “What?!”
He said, “Meaghan!” and kept knocking. “Hold on!” I said and got out of bed, pissed. I started looking for clothes, or started wandering around the apartment, taking my time, wondering if I really was obligated to open the door, and wondering whether, if I didn’t, he would use his key and walk in to find me pants-less and eight months pregnant, pacing my living room and rolling my eyes. In the middle of my fugue state, Dustin came out of the bathroom in his towel and opened the door in a flourish. I stood watching from the other end of the apartment, in awe and figuring Dustin was going to lose his shit, but by the time he’d opened the door the landlord was gone.
All along the banging and crashing continued. We both left the house, in a hurry to escape the noise and the weird violation of someone lingering around your house, someone who owns the place you live in and has a key to let themselves into it. I spent the day at the library and in the late afternoon and when I came home to grab some food I saw my neighbor, the old lady upstairs, standing on our stoop. When she saw me coming up the block she waited in the doorway, holding her mail. I wanted to dart away, to make her call after me, or at least make her leave me a long note in that perfect old lady cursive that is nearing extinction. We’d recently gotten a note from her full of apologies and attached to an opened envelope, a discount offer from the New York Review of Books, addressed to Dustin. She’d opened it without looking and was so, so sorry. The stationery has a picture of pears and a pear tree on it, just like the one our landlord had chopped down from our backyard the summer before because, he said, it attracted bees.
Anyway I climbed the steps of the stoop giving her a drawn-out, over sincere, “Hiiii.” She didn’t smile. “Now listen,” she said. Her accent is nasally, insistent, deep Brooklyn. I love it, until its ire is directed at me. “Do you know who stole that padlock?” I laughed, and felt caught even though NO, I have no idea who stole the godforsaken padlock off of the basement door.
“No!” I said, breaking eye contact with her for no good reason. Mostly because I couldn’t believe she was confronting me about this. “Well someone took it,” she said, “I’m just asking because you had people over this weekend, and…” I kept walking, shaking my head, but she called after me. “Someone was down in the basement, you know, and they left the front door to it, the one that leads out to the street, wide open.” I knew this already, because I had read the very long note from our landlord posted on the door.
“I know,” I said, “That’s very disturbing.”
“Well,” she said, “I don’t know if he’s going to give me a spare key now or not.”
“He better!” I said and walked away in a bit of a rage.
This morning, 9 a.m., Dustin was brushing his teeth and I was grabbing a towel to get in the shower. The radio was on, so I wasn’t sure whether I heard someone knocking or not, until he did it again, just much louder. Again I froze, again I hid at the other end of the apartment. Dustin finished brushing his teeth at, I like to think, a leisurely pace. Then he swung open the door and my heart skipped a beat.
“Dustin!” my landlord said. They exchanged pleasantries, Dustin’s thick with irony, my landlord’s indecipherable. He is not a person I can read, as much as I would love to. He is in a position of power over us, so he doesn’t have to mince words. He says what he wants and we resent him for it and that’s it. We can try to read him all we want but it doesn’t really make a difference, until he does something that I can google and find to be in violation of some housing law. It’s all I have.
“Uhh, a few things,” he says.
“Okay?” Dustin says.
He tells us about the missing padlock. “Yes, I saw that,” Dustin says.
“Do you know who did it?” I tried to hold in my laughter.
“No,” Dustin said, “I do not know who did it.”
“Okay, well, I asked around and no one knows but they said you guys had a, uh, gathering here over the weekend, so maybe one of your guests took it. And went in the basement.”
WE HAD A BABY SHOWER AT 3 P.M. ON SATURDAY. 15 PEOPLE CAME.
“No, no,” Dustin started, “We had close family and friends over, no one stole your padlock, and you know what? I’m insulted you would say that.”
At that moment I let out a huge, proud, “HA,” which Dustin said he heard and had to fight to keep a straight face.
This set off our landlord. I could almost hear him waving his hands. “No no no I am not accusing you, I am asking, the neighbors said, so–”
“Okay well, if one our guests shows up and tells us that they stole the padlock from the basement then walked through it and left the front door open, I will certainly let you know.”
Then they debated about whether or not someone from off the street came in through the street-facing window or unlocked basement door, then stole the lock. I stood there thinking, Well maybe one of my friends got drunk enough and thought it would be funny to steal the padlock — the padlock which I might add, our landlord left unlocked over the weekend and just hanging from the door — and here we are defending them and they are off somewhere walking around town with a random padlock in their purse, no key to open it should they ever lock it up.
In fact I am starting to hope that one of my friends, drunk on too much Prosecco and baby blue M&Ms, did it just to spite him.
Before he closed the door, Dustin reached into his wallet and handed our landlord a twenty, for the gas. It’s my bill to pay but I forget every time. Our landlord left and now I’ve spent the day wondering whether we are, as tenants, really supposed to answer the door every time our landlord knocks. Can I stand behind the door and ask him what he wants? Can I pretend I’m not there? Should I put on noise-canceling headphones and play dumb in case he bursts through the door? I know I’m being petty, I know that in case it’s an emergency, I should just throw on pants and answer the door anyway. But there is something about it — banging on the door that leads into our kitchen, just a few feet from our bed — that feels like such a violation, like a parent who won’t let you keep your door closed or a younger sibling who comes rushing into the bathroom while you’re trying to stare at your pores in the mirror.
I want to move to the woods.