I lived with Owen Katz for eleven weeks. He was sixty years-old. I’d found his room ad on Craigslist.
He owned a three-bedroom on 110th and 8th. The apartment was dark and smelled like curdled milk. Antique nightstands were stacked floor-to-ceiling in the hallway, making it difficult to get around.
But the building had amenities like an elevator and a laundry room. It faced Central Park too. I wanted to live in a nice neighborhood.
Owen showed me the vacant room. It had a mini-fridge and a yellow lamp and black hardwood floors. There was a tall bookcase built into the wall. Owen kept his books there even though he’d been renting the room out for years. There was no lock on the door.
The room’s centerpiece was an oil painting of a red-headed woman. Her expression was constipated aggression. Her eyes followed me.
It was a portrait of Owen’s mother, painted by the room’s previous tenant, Javier. Owen said the painting looked nothing like her. He showed me a photograph to prove his point. Javier’s style was Impressionistic, but he’d managed to capture Mrs. Katz’ scowl.
Javier killed himself two years prior by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. All because of some temptress. Owen told me he thought Javier would’ve become his lover had he lived.
Owen introduced me to his current tenant, Keith. He occupied the room adjacent to mine. Keith was twenty-one and short and had a regal beard. Reminded me of a Tolkein dwarf. He worked in reality television as a production assistant.
I said I was checking out the vacant room. Keith nodded and smiled. Then he closed his door and locked it. The next and last time I saw him was three weeks later. He was buying Cheetos and Gatorade at the BP on the corner.
The living room would have been spacious were it not for the array of coffee, end, and side tables that lined the walls. I asked Owen if he was in the furniture business. He said no, I’m an aspiring novelist.
I remarked at the army of circus chotchkies that covered every surface of the room. He ignored the comment and asked if I was partial to marijuana. I said yes.
He lit a joint and told me that he was born and educated in New York City. Studied journalism. Worked as a freelancer then moved to Germany to be a documentary programmer at the Berlin Film Festival. He called it The Berlinale.
Owen loved everything about Berlin. Wrote his first novel on the steps of the Reichstag. He admitted to being a teutophile and was adamant that I relocate to Berlin should I ever get the chance. Berlin’s a great artist town.
He asked if I spoke any other languages. I said no. He put out the joint and crossed his arms and legs and furrowed his brow. Then he said the room was mine if I agreed that I would never ever ever smoke cigarettes inside of it. I agreed.
It was only after I moved in that he mentioned he slept in the living room. Said I was welcome to hang out in there any time, though. I asked why he didn’t sleep in the third bedroom. He said he used it for storage.
Owen went to bed at two and woke before sunrise each day. The whistling kettle sounded his morning routine. After a breakfast of toast and tea, Owen would pry open the door to the spare room, stomp in, and slam it shut again. Then he’d bang things around in there for a few hours.
Sometimes his voice came muffled through the walls. Usually sounded like he was talking to somebody. Occasionally sounded like he was weeping. I never asked him what he did in there.
One afternoon I found a peculiar grapefruit in the freezer. It had a face made of cowrie shells. It was sitting right in front of the meatballs. Staring at me. Later, Google told me that it was an effigy to the god Eleguá. Eleguá is one of the gods in Santería.
Owen left town at the end of each month. He’d travel upstate to dwell in his cabin in the woods. He said most of his best writing came out of those weekends of seclusion.
I made full use of the apartment the first time he left. I overcooked pasta in the kitchen and watched television in the living room. Even had a couple of friends over. They didn’t stay very long.
Owen returned early Monday morning. He woke me by banging on my bedroom door. I found him standing motionless in the hallway, clad in a trench coat, glaring at me like I’d shot somebody.
He licked his lips and chewed on some words then finally asked if I’d deliberately burned his tea kettle. I said I didn’t know what he was talking about. He led me to the kitchen and thrust the kettle in my face and pointed to an inch-long burn mark.
There, he said, that one. Did you do this?
I hadn’t done that and said so. His jaw gaped in disbelief. I went back to my room. Owen pried open the door to the third bedroom and slammed it shut again. Started throwing things all over the place.
I listened to him chatter and hum and cry for a few hours. Then I went to work.
That night I was home alone. I decided to check out the third bedroom. I pried open the door and crossed the threshold.
Inside, there were dozens of homemade cloth dolls hanging from the ceiling. Big ones and small ones and medium ones. Fat and skinny and deformed. Most were tattered and stained but a few looked clean and new.
They all had buttons for eyes. All dangling like lynched bodies. All staring at me.
I closed the door to my bedroom and opened the window and smoked a cigarette. I considered contacting Keith but didn’t have his information.
I came down with the flu a day later. Threw up my guts until I had nothing left. At one point I passed Owen in the hallway on my way to the bathroom.
He asked if I was unwell. I nodded. He had circles under his eyes.
I called out of work and had hours of hot, dreamless sleep. When I finally woke up I rolled over and checked my phone for messages and saw Owen standing at the foot of my bed. I sprung to my feet and startled him.
He ran out the door. I followed him to the living room. Asked him what he was doing in my room.
He apologized. Thought I would be at work. Asked if I’d been smoking in the room.
I said I’d be moving out at the end of the month.
I didn’t own much so it was an easy move. Managed to get my clothes and computer and hard drives to my new place in Brooklyn before the lease started. Couch-surfed for a couple weeks to avoid Owen.
I went back to his place on the 31st to clean the room and get my security deposit back. Owen watched me change the AC filter and dust and sweep the floor. Then I asked if he was satisfied.
He nodded, said the room was clean enough to show. Then he mentioned, matter-of-factly, that his birthday was tomorrow. He would be sixty-one. I wished him a happy birthday.
Owen handed me my security deposit. I wish it would’ve worked out, he said. I was hoping you’d stay for at least a year.
I thanked him and showed myself out.