Dumbass

Mary Crawford

Since the beginning the young woman who rented the studio apartment upstairs had many complaints, most of them unimportant, many flat-out nuts. The doorknobs, every single one, were dusty. The plaster ceiling squeaked. The tenant frequently telephoned the landlady and described nonproblems in a breathy inconclusive voice. A whiny voice, actually. The tenant whined.

 

Late one Thursday the tenant called. She had seen a mouse; her own remedies were not working. Could the landlady possibly do something?

“Of course,” the landlady said. “Call me first when something goes wrong. It’s better to catch things early.”

She meant it was cheaper to catch things early.

The landlady went upstairs to find the tenant, dressed in a brilliant-white ruffled nightgown, standing guard at the open door. Inside, four mouse traps had already been situated, the center of each trap baited with a perfectly cut triangle of Swiss cheese. The landlady leaned closer—these traps had not been set—they lay in the middle of the floor as innocuous as baby dolls.

“You know,” the landlady said. “My grampa would use apples spread with peanut butter.”

“For what?” the tenant asked.

“To catch the mice. I’m not even sure mice really like cheese.”

“Yes, they do,” the tenant said.

Just then the landlady, from the corner of her eye, registered a black blur racing along the baseboard and judged that blur to be a rat, not a mouse. “They chew their way in through the stucco, you know. When it’s cold.”

“I don’t want to hurt him,” said the tenant.

“Tomorrow I’ll get the exterminator,” the landlady said. The exterminator was useless and also charged five hundred bucks, so tomorrow while the tenant was at work she herself would come and plug each crack beneath the sink with steel wool. “Would you like Camilla for tonight?” the landlady asked. “She’s good at scaring away mice.”

Camilla was the landlady’s cat.

“OK,” the tenant said, unsure. Though almost everything she said sounded unsure.

“The smell of Camilla will keep the mice away.”

“Does she smell?”

“Oh no,” the landlady said, too emphatically. “The mice can smell her, not us.”

Camilla smelled like nothing. She smelled warm.

 

The landlady went downstairs and entered the bedroom.

“You’ll never guess,” she said.

The colandlady was already in bed, book in her lap, reading glasses at the end of her nose. Until recently, she had felt cold nearly all the time, wearing thick socks and sometimes even a knit hat to bed even though they lived in Los Angeles. She had spent her childhood in a warm climate, tropical even, running barefoot on white-sand beaches and making conversation with inquisitive dolphins. But lately she had been getting hot, especially at night, so she had taken to wearing boy shorts and frilly rose-colored tank tops to bed.

“These mouse traps were all over the floor. It was like . . .” a cartoon, the landlady was going to say, the cartoon where the cat sets down a plate of Swiss cheese to lure the smarter mouse from its hole in order to smash its head in with a cartoon sledgehammer, but the landlady was laughing so hard the words wouldn’t come. The colandlady began to laugh, too, even though she didn’t know what they were laughing about.

“It was like,” the landlady finally got out. “It was like she went to Gelson’s and spent thirty-five bucks on Emmenthaler.” She gasped for breath. “Those traps weren’t even set.”

“Dumbass,” the colandlady said. “Dumbass naca.

The landlady stopped, her laughter evaporated. The word “dumbass” had summoned a memory, a memory of the time the colandlady had called the tenant a dumbass to her face and the tenant had called the landlady to complain, a lengthy phone conversation, and after that, the colandlady was barred from interacting with the tenant, which fed into the landlady’s suspicions that if there was something the colandlady didn’t like doing, no matter how necessary or helpful or even trivial or brief, she would deliberately fuck it up so that every single ounce of tedious necessities fell to the landlady, which also explained why the landlady was running up and down the stairs in the middle of the night while the colandlady was relaxing in bed with a book.

The landlady stood still, meaningfully still, then left for the backyard. The colandlady sighed and continued with her reading.

 

The backyard was cool, freshened by nighttime breezes fluttering the leaves on the sapote and pomegranate trees. Above the chimney a radiant moon was rising. The landlady filled her lungs with cool sweet air. Rageful thoughts must go; there was a rat problem to solve.

“Camilla,” she said. Nothing happened, so she said it again, and this time, by the bottom of the drain pipe, a head appeared, small and sleek, soon followed by the rest of Camilla’s long body. The cat paused to stretch, reaching her forepaws as far as they would go, and only after a lengthy full-faced yawn did Camilla allow herself to be collected. The landlady carried her up the stairs, the cat hardly squirming, yet allowing the landlady to appreciate, beneath Camilla’s soft white coat, the murderous rippling of rat-killing sinews. Once the tenant let them in, the landlady dropped Camilla to the floor. The cat took an investigative sniff, then another, before venturing closer to the traps.

“She smells the cheese,” the landlady said. “Cats like cheese.”

“No, they don’t,” the tenant said. “Mice like cheese.”

The landlady glanced at the mousetraps arranged in their perfectly harmless square. “Everyone likes it,” she said.

The tenant returned to bed, with care lifting the spotless white coverlet nearly to her chin, covering even more completely her small, very pretty breasts.

“Camilla, be good,” the landlady said, yet Camilla’s ears never even twitched.

 

The landlady came downstairs and sat in the darkened living room before the silent black rectangle of TV. This would serve everybody right—if she stayed on the couch all night watching the Kardashians. Instead, she rose and headed for the bedroom, with each step thinking grow up, grow up, grow up. She reached the bedroom door and the colandlady, without ever really taking her eyes off the book, lifted her elbow to indicate the landlady should lie by her side. So the landlady lay down beside the colandlady and embraced her around the middle and the colandlady let her hand fall down into the landlady’s hair. The colandlady read her book, steadily turning each page, as the landlady, who thought she was sleepy but wasn’t particularly, began to sense another thing, a familiar thing, an interior movement like the not-so-floppy tail of a marine mammal, a movement growing increasingly more persuasive. An unfolding. A fount. The landlady slid the tips of her fingers beneath the hem of the colandlady’s boy shorts. The colandlady did not put down the book, but instead kicked her legs out from under the covers. She was overheating. Again. The landlady hesitated. Had she misapprehended? From the beginning, the colandlady had been the one to initiate: producer, director, and very often costume designer of their once regular midnight ¡Sexitime!

What was happening? The answer seemed obvious. Obvious, frightening, permanent. Was their delicious fucking to be replaced by the separate reading of books? The landlady was also certain her body was next. She was next.

The colandlady noticed the tears. “Now what?” she said.

Just then the landlady’s phone buzzed. The tenant, in her breathy inconclusive voice, wanted to know why the cat was staring. Take it away, she said and hung up. The landlady re-enacted the conversation once or twice as the colandlady kept an uncharacteristically expressionless face. The landlady climbed from bed and the colandlady slapped her on the rump, saying, “Hurry back.” Her smile was encouraging, the genial smile of a mom on the sidelines of a soccer field, distributing juice boxes.

The landlady made herself not think about it.

 

Upstairs Camilla’s snout was buried in a can of tuna, which turned out to be superior Spanish tuna belly packed in olive oil. Fifteen dollars a can.

“You’re spoiling her,” the landlady said, astonished.

“She looked hungry.” The stiff ruffles on the collar of the nightgown underlined the tenant’s terrified face. A deranged Infanta, a homegirl Lady Macbeth. That billowy nightgown the size of a sail, brighter than the bright side of the moon. The landlady rifled through her metaphors to bring back a description for the colandlady.

“Take that with you,” the tenant said, meaning the tuna.

Personally the landlady would not want to sleep in a room with a rat concealed in the wall. She knelt to retrieve Camilla and the half-eaten can.

“Sorry,” she said. “Tomorrow things will be fixed.”

 

The landlady carried the cat down the stairs and into the yard. Camilla twisted her spine to escape, though the landlady was stronger and would not let go. The pale house loomed against the night sky. Upstairs a light burned and downstairs a light burned. The cat’s life was immediate, without filters or boxes. Her wants were not secret.

The downstairs light went out. Book replaced, covers aligned just so.

Waiting.

Or not.

The landlady let Camilla fall and watched as the cat disappeared among the tangled ivy.

Back to top ↑