by Tim Tompkins with help from Frances Tompkins
May 1982, West Oakland
Angry voices, squealing tires
gunshots in the street every night
and the police never come.
$46.50 a week
cheapest room we could find
they lock the door to the lobby
even in the daytime.
It’s almost midnight
and someone’s in the hall
snapping his fingers in a slow trochee
with demonic repetition, menacing us
like clock ticks portending imminent evil
hijacking my attention
from an abstract poem in the making
to conjectures of real danger
lurking in the close unknown.
Is he killing time or, as Frances offers,
building toward a psychotic murder?
The finger snapping stops.
I sit up in the straight-back chair
and brace for trouble.
Knock knock knock at our neighbor’s door
a hoarse male whisper,
“Who is it?”
“Who do you think it is?!”
She fumbles with the chain.
“What you got this damn lock on the door for?
I didn’t tell you to put this chain on the door!”
She opens it.
He goes in.
She locks it.
An emergency siren phases among boulevards of buildings
on its way up and through the tall open window
of our seventh story room
where I stare out at the sodium vapor light sky.
What appears to be a thick rope
drops in jerks past the window
swinging like a white snake
down from an overhead jungle branch.
I squint to focus, is it a fire hose?
Frances, “It’s the killer.
He’s sliding down to get in!”
I stand up, wincing as the floor creeks under my feet
to fetch the big knife from the food box.
I give it to Frances, who crouches to the side
where he won’t see her if he comes in feet first.
I grab the old oak chair I had been sitting in
lift it as a weapon.
The hose stops moving.
This is the top floor.
The door to the roof was locked
when we tried it yesterday,
up that tiny stairway
leading from the hall
between the restrooms.
Does he know we’re waiting?
Is this part of his plan?
I step to the window, touch the hose
look up, only the brow of the building,
look down, it would be a fatal fall.
Heavy footsteps come down the hall
stop at our door.
Frances whispers, “Someone’s coming!”
I pull back into the room.
A burst of urgent knocks.
I harden my voice into its bass range,
“Who is it?”
“The night clerk.
Do you know anything about the fire hose?”
Frances moves to hide behind the swing of the door.
“No,” I open it just enough,
“what’s it doing outside our window?”
“I hung it there to dry out.”
not in the mood for this,
“Somebody dragged it down the hall to the ladies room
and left it running,
dripped clear through seven floors to the lobby.”
We follow him out to look
walk the red carpet, worn, wet
saturated where the floor sags near the restrooms
then return to our small room
with the stained rug, yellow walls
naked bulb swinging from the peeling ceiling.
The splintered door jam
where ragged holes are all that’s left
of failed security gestures.
Frances heats water for cocoa
on our prohibited camp stove
gets back in bed with her book.
A yelled curse and two door slams
echo up from another floor.
I return to the writing table.
“Don’t touch it, don’t touch it!”
the man’s voice in the room next door.
A metalic crash jars our adjoining wall.
“Rape, rape!” the woman screams,
A collision of furniture
trembles the timbers in the floor
a chunk of plaster falls from our ceiling.
She, “Don’t come back.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he opens their door.
“Don’t come back! If you leave, don’t come back!”
More firmly, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Don’t come back, I don’t want nothin’ t’ do with you!”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He walks away down the hall.
Arson wouldn’t surprise me.
What will we take
if we need to leave in a hurry?
The instruments, the camera,
what about our bulky boxes of papers
journals, poems, prose?
We sip our steaming sweet surrogate security.
The phone rings next door.
The woman shrieks, “I don’t care!
You’re 37 years old,
you walk home, motherfucker!!”
I cautiously advance a pencil into my ear
after a maddening tickle
and stare out the window.
“I got a brain!” she screams,
“You understand me, motherfucker?!”
The white hose hangs still.
The Oakland Tribune tower says 2:40 in neon.
I yawn and yield to the attraction of my wife
as she snuggles into the covers.