Written by Floyd Sullivan for the Architecture of Power: Short Story Contest
The Last House in Chicago
The house was a typical Chicago two-story frame structure with a sharply peaked roof. Pale green window frames, gutters, and downspouts trimmed white aluminum siding. I waited in my car until the landlord arrived. She pulled up ten minutes late in a red Honda Civic, gathered some papers and her bag, and hopped out of the driver’s side door.
“Hello,” she said cheerfully. “You must be Mr. Peters.” She extended a hand, introduced herself as Marnie, and led me to the front door. She looked to be close to forty, casually dressed in slacks and a light tan jacket. As she dug the keys out of her purse she said, “This is a great old building, built in 1911 as a single family house. It was subdivided into two apartments after World War II, and updated seven years ago. Hardwood floors throughout. New electric, new water pipes, a new boiler. We kept the original cast iron radiators, though. Can’t beat those old workhorses.”
She opened the door and we entered a small foyer with two inner doors. “You know you’re as far northwest as you can get in the city? Your address is West Howard, but your next door neighbor’s is Sibley Street in Park Ridge.”
“Who lives upstairs?” I asked.
“A medical student. He’s doing his residency at Resurrection.”
The large living room was surrounded on two sides by tall windows. The kitchen had the longest island I’d ever seen with room enough left for a good sized table with chairs. A brand new refrigerator and stove with generous adjacent granite counter space ran along two walls.
The basement seemed small compared to the footprint of the first floor. A narrow hall led from the stairs to the laundry room. “You’re the only one with access to the washer and dryer,” said Marnie.
That sealed the deal for me. I signed the lease and moved in at the end of the month.
One morning two weeks later I heard the upstairs tenant leave and assumed I could take a shower confident of a steady stream of hot water. But five minutes into it the water turned cold enough to send me shivering to the far end of the tub. A few moments later the hot water returned. I finished my shower and thought little more about it.
The following Saturday as I carried a basket of laundry to the basement I paused at the bottom of the stairs to redistribute the weight and thought I heard the sound of a door latch snapping into place. I turned toward the source of the noise but saw nothing. Someone must have closed a gate in the gangway between my building and the Park Ridge house next door, I concluded. I loaded the washer and went upstairs.
Closing the basement door I wondered if I had set the right water temperature for my laundry. I returned downstairs.
As I entered the dark hallway I saw his shadow. He stood with his back to me looking into the laundry room. An old wood handled broom leaned against the wall just ahead. I took a step and reached for it. He sensed my presence and turned as I lifted the broom above my head.
He stepped back and raised his arm to protect his head. “Don’t hit me!” He looked old even as a silhouette against the light in the laundry room.
“Who are you? How’d you get in?”
“Get in? There ain’t no gettin’ in. I live here. I’m Jack, your downstairs neighbor.”
“My what? Nobody told me about you.”
“I’m not supposed to be here, that’s why.” He lowered his arm and backed into the laundry room. I put the broom down and followed him, pausing at the threshold. He stood against the washing machine. He was bald and wore gold wire rimmed glasses, a stained white tee shirt, soiled blue cargo pants, and frayed red plaid slippers with no socks.
“How can you live down here and the landlord doesn’t know about it?”
He limped toward me. “Excuse me,” he said. I gave him enough space to enter the hallway, and followed him to a wall under the basement steps. He flipped open a panel that I hadn’t noticed before and turned a flat lever. A door opened. “My little apartment down here is illegal. Whole damn house has been illegal since the day my grandpa built it.”
He led me into an open space about the size of my kitchen. He continued on to another door at the far end of the room. “Be right back. Nature calls.”
A single bed, a dresser, a card table with two folding chairs, a small white refrigerator, an end table with a hot plate and percolator stood along faded wood paneled walls. A coffee table with an open laptop at its far edge was next to the bed. A small green throw rug covered a tiny bit of the deeply scratched black and white checkerboard tiled floor. Pulsing green-white fluorescent ceiling lights illuminated the room.
A toilet flushed. He returned and pulled a chair out from the card table. “Make yourself at home.”
I remained standing. “You said you’re illegal.”
He sat on the bed and folded his hands. “This apartment is illegal. Well, it ain’t no real apartment anyway.” He waved his arm at his space. “This used to be our rec room. We had a pool table right there.” He pointed at the card table. “Had some fun times down here.”
“Why’s it illegal?”
“The city would call it an illegal conversion, if they knew it was here. Only supposed to be two units in this house.”
I walked to the table and sat. “You said this used to be your rec room, and your grandfather built the house.”
“Yep. Built it illegal. You see, this here is a typical wood balloon frame house. You’ve heard of the Great Fire?”
“Well, after the fire they changed the building codes. Everything had to be made of brick. Our neighborhood was annexed to the city in 1910, so in 1911 we weren’t supposed to build a wood house. We’ve been illegal from the start.”
“Must have been a nice home once.”
“Living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor. Bedrooms on the second. We had it good.”
“Kids moved out. Parents got talked into a legal conversion into a two-flat. I lived on the second floor until Mom and Pop died and the siblings sold it. I didn’t get much out of it, though. Too many damn kids splitting the equity.”
“They doubled my rent. I couldn’t afford it so I moved out. But I know all of this house’s secrets. They think this part of the basement is sealed off, but I knew how to get in. Last laugh is mine. I don’t pay no rent at all.”
I could hear the washing machine shut off through the wall. “I gotta go.” I stood. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”
“I appreciate it.” He pushed himself up from his bed. “You gonna use the dryer?”
“You’re welcome to wait out the cycle here.”
Over the weeks we sat at his little table on wash days and talked about his life, and the life of the house. He showed me his private entrance, a basement door that the landlord also thought to be sealed off. “I come and go through the alley and the back yard,” he said.
He had watched as other old houses on the street were demolished and replaced by huge McMansions, some built on two or more lots. “The old place’s days are numbered,” he told me. “Landlord will tear it down and build a big new brick home.”
And then the polar vortex arrived. I woke up early that Thursday and checked the living room thermostat. Fifty-two degrees. The ancient radiators just couldn’t keep up with the arctic temperatures outside. I thought of my illegal neighbor and, putting on my winter coat, went down to the basement. I knocked on his door, but there was no reply. Later that morning, Marnie arrived with two space heaters. When the inside temperature approached sixty-five degrees I went back downstairs and knocked again. Still no answer. I backed away from the door and ran at it leading with my shoulder. The thin wood gave way immediately.
The apartment was empty.
Normal winter eventually returned. Each morning I checked the illegal unit, but Jack never returned.
Toward the end of February I received a postcard with a color picture of a cactus on one side and a Mesa, Arizona postmark on the other. I could hardly read the scrawl but finally made out, “Howdy neighbor. No polar vortex for me. I knocked on the basement door to say goodbye but you weren’t home. Spring Training starts in a couple of days. Jack.”