Out of the stories publicized under the “20 under 40” media affair, “The Landlord” by Wells Tower makes for one of the better reads. Sure, as a short story it doesn’t totally hit all the marks. For one, the ending is weak, or perhaps the problem isn’t with weakness, but that there isn’t really an ending. The story just stops.
Another area that could be a distraction is the meandering flow of this story. Personally, I don’t find it bothersome, as the characters are all interesting and well-developed. What is lost though is focus. The focus (as the title suggests) is on the Landlord, and the point of view is first person. Yet, the landlord seems lost and is pulled in multiple directions by his tenants, his employees, and his daughter. At times, we have a clearer picture of these other characters than the narrator.
Now that we have those issues out of the way, what I love about this story are the details.
The story opens:
At ten-thirty, Armando Colón comes to my office. It lifts my mood to see him. Armando lives in one of the worst properties I own, an apartment complex so rife with mold and vermin that, when I sent a man to clean a vacant unit there, he developed an eye infection that didn’t clear up for a month. You would never know it to look at Armando. His shirt is crisp, his stomach is trim, and his hairline is freshly razored into aristocratic darts. He operates a squeezeball with his right hand. His cologne, applied with restraint, has a wholesome cedar scent, and his presence in the stale air of my office is a force of orderliness and industry.
We move onto the character of Todd Toole and his description.
Todd is in his sixties, and he is a venomous human being. He is angry that I don’t feel the same bile toward his co-workers or my tenants as he does. He is angry that, owing to the frailty of his liver and esophagus, he has only a couple of dozen good drunks left in him, and he must spend them wisely. He is angry that he once went to jail for shooting his ex-wife with toilet paper wadded into a .41 Magnum cartridge, which in his opinion did not constitute a deadly weapon. Yet, when Todd can be persuaded to work, he is an artful trim carpenter, and so unappealing to other employers that I’m able to hire him at about one-third the going wage.
I’ll just list off some of the other odd, memorable details.
I hand Todd a billing envelope containing four hundred and fifty dollars. He counts the money and pockets it. Then he blows his nose into the envelope. He checks the cellophane window and puts the envelope into his pocket along with the bills.
With Connie and the other single-woman renters in their middle years, it’s like we went through a bad divorce before I even got to hold their hands. I’m responsible for their comfort and security, and they’re bitter that I don’t do more to keep them comfortable and secure.
The wind turns the ceiling fan in the halved living room and herds leaves along the kitchen counters.
He was standing barefoot in a line of people waiting to get a free peanut-butter sandwich from a teen-age Marxist group.
When the tenants in No. 4 departed, they left me with the by-products of a homespun brothel: three fragrant mattresses and a thirty-gallon garbage can filled with spent condoms.
While not a complete success, “The Landlord” is a great example in how to make intriguing characters come alive through unique descriptions and details.
Q&A with Wells Tower from The New Yorker
Interview with Wells Tower from Bookslut