What the landlord knows

Lincoln Michel

Does the landlord keep a box in the basement behind the boiler? Does the box contain folders, which contain files, which contain every secret of every tenant in the building?

No, that is impossible. The landlord may know many things, but he does not know everything. The landlord, despite his wishes, is not a god. And yet, each night, when the dying sun hacks red rays across the skyline, the landlord waves at the tenants mulling by the post box or smoking on the stoop and descends down the metal staircase into the basement, closing the door behind him with an audible click. There, he surely keeps many files. A box’s worth. Maybe more. A box for each tenant, perhaps, with their name written along the side in large swooping letters. While the landlord’s files do not list every secret, he does have reams of records. The birth dates and credit histories and previous paystubs and other intimate information—information hidden, in many cases, by each tenant from the others, even the ones who share their beds, turned on their sides and snoring louder than the radiator in the dark of night. The landlord may study these. Look at the data and intuit. Extrapolate. The landlord is not a learned man, but he is a studious one. What he lacks in education is made up for in application, elbow grease, and proximity of nose to grindstone.

Did the landlord install recording equipment in the building? Did the gut renovation involve stringing white wires, like tapeworms through the walls, whose mouths end in cameras? Did he leave the deconstructed cardboard boxes that contained the wires on the street until Thursday, the recycling day? Did he put these devices in every room? Are they the hiding in the cracks along the ceilings, cracks that are large and deep but too high to look at without a ladder? Did the equipment cost a fortune? Require a loan from the local credit union? At night, does the landlord review the recordings from the comfort of his bed before going to sleep?

No one can deny that the landlord seems to know things. That he snickers when a tenant walks past, primmed and primed for the new work day, as if he knew their hidden faces and secret sounds. As if he was matching the burps and screams and grunts of either pleasure or constipation to each tenant as they walk past, thermos of coffee in hand.

But why would the landlord collect this data? To increase his rental incomes? To time the new lease, with a surprising increase in rent, to appear after a tenant has received a bonus at work? To give notice of maintenance work on the front hallway, whose dull marble floors are as cracked as the plates flung into the wall in 2B during last Saturday’s shouting match, when the fewest number of tenants are home to answer the door? Why would the landlord’s plans be so banal? So inconsequential? Is the landlord not an ambitious man? Can you not imagine him as having interests beyond the trivialities of moderate increases in yearly net income? Why do you not believe the landlord is gathering this information for a higher, scientific purpose? Could not humanity’s understanding of itself be advanced by an unfiltered view into the lives that we all, every one of us, attempt to suppress? The glimpse behind the false mask of civilization that we all wear, at almost every moment of the day, whether with friends or family, at work or school, except in those rare moments when we are home, alone, and believe ourselves (falsely) to be unwatched?

Yes, okay, maybe, no one can say.

Does the landlord collect miniatures? Small models that he paints to look lifelike and arranges in strange formations on the dinner table? Are they visible in his first-floor apartment on those rare moments his curtains are open? Don’t the figures look familiar? Are they models purchased from a local store? An online emporium? Or does the landlord create these models? Does he own an advanced 3D printer that can duplicate a body down to the pimples on the behind and the stains on the once-white teeth? Is it in the basement beside the boxes and the boiler? Does the landlord feed the footage into the printer to create perfect models of each tenant?

No, no. Surely it would be more economically efficient for the landlord to simply take the data from the various cameras hidden in the walls across town to the local store that specializes in printing realistic gypsum-based polymer models. The landlord is nothing if not economically efficient. Cheap even. Chintzy. So cheap that the boiler is rarely turned on even in the depth of winter, and white walls are never repainted no matter how they crack.

But the one question that nags is what the landlord would do with these 3D models? Does he hide in his basement each night and arrange each tenant in their dollhouse slots? Is the landlord using the models, so perfect in every detail, to recreate the energetic arguments and bitter lovemaking of his tenants as the audio recordings play in his headphones? Does the landlord, through these studies, know more about the lives of his tenants than they do themselves? Can he intuit their dreams? Divine their future? Does the landlord keep a list of each tragedy that is statistically likely to befall each tenant? How 1C’s new marriage will end in an ugly divorce? The loud snap, like the breaking of a large carrot, that will occur when 4A’s leg is crushed by a passing car a mere block from home? The brilliant pink of the bath water when 5D slices her life away at the wrists? Does the landlord know, with an impossibly high degree of accuracy, who will escape the building and who will never leave? How on each floor some people will give up their dreams, resign themselves to their lot in life, and grind their way slowly to death in the rooms that he alone owns?

It is hard to say. We wouldn’t want to speculate. But, yes, each night, as we lay in bed unable to sleep, the anxieties and fears overwhelming us, the problems of love and work and money choking us, we hear a sound rattle up the pipes, emanating from the basement that only the landlord has access to, and which sounds to some like weeping and to the others unmistakably as laughter.