The Shores was a collection of towering condos across the bridge from San Diego on the far end of Coronado Island. It sat right on the beach: a dozen or so high-rises, each perched at odd angles to accentuate their vistas: 180 degrees of expansive ocean to the west, the tip of Mexico to the south, Pt. Loma’s cliffs to the north, and to the east, the naval amphibious base, the bay with its tiny yacht harbor, and the curling blue ribbon of bridge just beyond the green fairways of the city’s golf course. The towers were considered an eye-sore by most locals, an aberration to the island’s old-school charm that had somehow garnered approval from the city’s fathers back when they were constructed in the 1960’s. Less than half of the units were occupied full-time; most were vacation places, many owned by wealthy Mexicans, that were sometimes used as short-term rentals.
Each tower had a separate name, as well as a doorman who sat behind a desk just inside the foyer’s front doors across from a bank of elevators and wall of mailboxes. Tony was Cabrillo Tower’s daytime doorman, a big, boisterous Navy vet from a little town in Wisconsin who’d been there for as long as anyone could remember. His teeth were smoke-stained andcrooked, and he regularly gave off the lingering odor of alcohol from the previous night, but residents overlooked both because of his jocular good nature and ready helpfulness. His girth strained at the khaki sport coat and the white shirts he had dry cleaned each week, his tie was generally a little too short, and his shoes were always scuffed, but residents ignored these blemishes, too. Occasionally, if the night before had been a long one, he dozed sitting up straight behind the desk with his chin on his chest; when residents came upon him like that, they simply gave rueful smiles and passed by him as quietly as possible. Tony’s age was indiscriminate, most guessed somewhere around sixty, and he greeted everyone by name.
One of the residents he’d known the longest was a frail old widow named Gladys who lived in a one-bedroom unit on the top floor facing the ocean. He routinely helped her with her mailbox, which was a little too high for her to manage. Each Monday morning, he also assisted her when she took a cab for her few groceries, holding her walker and folding it up for her when she climbed inside, and then repeating the process when she returned, tying the plastic grocery sacks over the walker’s arms once he’d gotten her in the elevator and pushed the button for her floor. Afterwards, they went through a practiced charade of her trying to tip him while he shooed away her outstretched hand until the elevator door slid closed in front of her.
A young man named Stan had come across Tony dozing behind the desk the first time he entered Cabrillo Tower a year or so before. He’d been with a buddy from his squadron at the time. Both were out of uniform because they were going to visit a pair of sisters from Mexico they’d met the night before at a nightclub who had extended an invitation to use the pool with them.
“Do you think we need to wake him?” Stan asked. “Have him call their condo and announce us or something?”
His friend made a gesture like he was shooing away a fly, so Stan followed him onto the elevator. Both sisters answered with excitement when they knocked on the door. Stan gazed around the opulent interior of the air-conditioned unit while they waited for the women to change into bathing suits, and an idea began to form in his mind. Before they went downstairs, he asked to use the bathroom. After he closed the door, he waited a minute, then flushed the toilet, ran both faucets in the sink, and opened the crowded medicine cabinet above it. Among the pill bottles, he quickly found both Valium and Adderall; he figured the Valium was the mother’s and guessed the younger, flightier sister for the one who’d had ADHD. Neither was one of his drugs of choice, but he knew sailors to whom he could sell both, so he pocketed a few pills from each bottle, replaced them carefully, and rejoined the others where they waited in the living room.
Now, Stan sat slumped in his parked pick-up truck at the end of the visitors’ lot across from Cabrillo Tower’s entrance. Through the building’s tall front windows, he had a clear view of the side of Tony at his desk. The big man had a folded newspaper in front of him and was alternately licking the tip of a pencil and filling in squares on a crossword puzzle. It was nearly ten o’clock, a Monday, and Stan saw no activity in the foyer until Tony jumped up suddenly and disappeared towards the elevators. A moment later, he reappeared helping an old woman on a walker out to an idling taxi in the drop-off circle just beyond the front doors.
It had only been a couple of months since Stan’s dishonorable discharge from the Navy. An angry sailor he’d gotten into a fight with and then refused to sell to had told Stan’s chief petty officer about his side trade. The brass couldn’t prove distribution, but when they searched his room in enlisted housing, they found an assortment of opioid medications, two of which were in bottles prescribed to a new recruit down the hall that Stan had stolen from the shower room. So, he’d been booted. He cursed under his breath at the memory of it. After all, he thought, it was really the Navy’s fault that things had developed the way they had. He’d never taken a pain killer until after his shoulder surgery for an accident during a training exercise that should have never have been ordered. His addiction started gradually from there: OxyContin if he could get it, Vicodin if he couldn’t. When his scripts ran out, he learned about a supplier through a guy he met at a bar. But he needed a way to pay for the habit, and that’s when the thefts and selling began. His older cousin back home had taught him how to pick locks when he’d been in high school and they’d broken into a few lake cabins boarded up for the winter to get things they could fence to buy motorcycle parts and beer.
Stan had been sleeping on a friend’s couch since being tossed from the Navy and had used Cabrillo Tower exclusively so far for his pilfering. His method was always the same. He’d wait until he saw Tony dozing at the desk, then get out of the truck and strap a tool belt to the coveralls he wore. Next, he’d walk past the slumbering doorman and onto the elevator, press the button for a random floor, and simply knock on doors. If someone answered, he’d ask if theirs was the unit that had called for a problem with a light fixture, then apologize and wander off when told it wasn’t; that had only happened twice. When no one answered a knock, he’d slip on thin work gloves and quickly pick the lock to go inside, ready with an explanation that he was fixing the door handle if anyone surprised him in the hallway; no one ever had. Then, he’d take whatever meds he could find to use himself or sell, never leaving a bottle empty, as well as some jewelry here and there that he was pretty sure wouldn’t be immediately missed. In a half-hour, he could hit several units and then leave through the basement garage. Its sliding gate for vehicles could only be accessed by punching in a code, but he’d located a side door there that had no outside handle for entry, but a push bar on the inside that opened onto a stairwell rising to the ground level.
Stan watched Tony grin and wave as the taxi pulled away, then lumber back inside, resume his seat behind his desk, and pick up the newspaper and pencil again. The taxi crept by Stan’s truck and he regarded the feeble expression of the tiny, old woman in the back seat whose skull was visible through her thin cap of white hair; she reminded him of his own grandmother, the one person in his life who’d always treated him kindly. Under her chin, the old woman clasped a chain of some sort in both hands, and he had to squint to identify it as rosary beads. Then the cab was past him and headed out of the parking lot. Stan’s thoughts drifted to his own days in Catholic elementary school: the stern stares of ruler-wielding nuns, the smell of incense that always made him dizzy at the obligatory Friday morning Mass for students, the smoke-stained brick of the factory across the street from the classroom windows where most of their fathers worked.
“Bless me, Father,” Stan whispered, “for I have sinned.” He tried to smile, but a chill spread through him instead.
Twenty minutes later, Tony licked the pencil tip, furrowed his brow, set the newspaper down on the desk, and blew out a long breath. He was sweating more than usual and grimaced at his own smell. He’d started out after work the night before as always by walking up the hill from The Shores to Danny’s Pub. He’d settled onto his regular stool, ordered his usual carafe of white wine, and began joking with the bartender and a few other old-time patrons. He’d nursed a second carafe along with a burger, then held off on the Johnny Walker until he hit McP’s. The additional stop at the Brigantine afterwards was what pushed things over the top. It was nearly closing time when he staggered up the stairs into the studio apartment he rented over a laundromat. Tony dropped the pencil, yawned, and shut his eyes. Stan waited until he saw the big man’s chin fall to his chest and the slow, even breathing begin to step out of his truck, strap on his toolbelt, and start toward the entrance of the tower.
At that same moment, Gladys shuffled down a supermarket aisle with a plastic basket hung over the arm of her walker. So far, she’d placed nine items in the basket: seven microwave dinners, a box of bran cereal, and a package of adult diapers. She paused at the freezer section to look in at the chocolate chip ice cream, which had been her husband’s favorite. She sometimes bought herself one of the small cartons as a treat and remembrance, but still had some left at home. Her stomach made its familiar drop at the face that stared back at her in the reflection of the freezer case’s glass. She looked hard in it for vestiges of the young Navy bride she’d once been, but could find none. Gladys shook her head and continued down the aisle. She stopped for bread and cheese, then headed to the shortest line at the cash registers. The pimply-faced teenaged boy who always bagged her groceries carried them outside to her same waiting taxi.
Stan had chosen the top floor to search and had gotten lucky with what he’d found in the two units he’d broken into so far: in the first, a nearly full bottle of Percocet, and in the second, Xanax, Vicodin, and a pair of antique earrings he was pretty sure were white gold. He closed the second condo’s door silently behind him and turned to the unit directly across the hall on the ocean side. He knocked, waited, knocked again, counted to ten, then glanced up and down the empty hall and began picking the door’s lock.
When the taxi pulled back in front of Cabrillo Tower, Gladys saw Tony sleeping in his chair behind the front desk. A small smile creased her lips as she asked the driver to help her. They passed the desk to the elevators without speaking and he tied off her groceries as she directed. After she’d pushed the button to go up, she paid the driver, watched him leave, jockeyed herself into the elevator, and watched the big doorman’s chest heave and fall with his short snores as the door closed.
Inside the condo, Stan looked out of the windows at the wide expanse of glistening blue ocean in all directions and listened to the soft tumble of waves. Growing up poor in the Midwest, he’d never seen the ocean before being stationed in San Diego, and it still seemed unreal to him, especially at that height. He went into the bathroom. There was nothing of any value to him in the medicine cabinet, but he paused a moment to study an old black-and-white photograph that was taped to its mirrored front when he snapped it closed. In it, a young pilot in Navy flight gear stood squinting into the sun in front of a fighter jet that was now a relic. He was a slender, good-looking man who held his helmet tipped against one hip, and the zippered flight suit he wore was not unlike Stan’s coveralls. He snorted a chuckle and opened a velvet-covered jewelry box that perched on the counter next to the sink. Reedy music came from it when he lifted the lid. He sifted through its contents, chose a necklace that looked like pearls, looped it over his wrist, and shut the lid. When he came into the living room, the front door was open and the old woman from the taxi stood just inside it leaning on a walker with grocery bags tied to its arms. Her startled eyes held his for several seconds until they lowered to the necklace on his wrist. Gladys put an open palm to her chest and said, “No.” Then she fell in a heap onto the thick carpet between the legs of the walker.
“Shit!” Stan hissed.
He hurried to her side and knelt down. Her eyes were open but wide with terror. A thin trail of drool trickled down her chin, and her right ankle twitched. Her breath came in short, weak gasps and both her balled fists unfurled slowly. She moaned once and shut her eyes.
Stan’s own eyes swept across the room. An old-fashioned rotary phone sat on a small table to his right. A piece of adhesive tape was stuck to its base with the words “Front Desk” and digits written on it in unsteady scrawl. He grabbed the phone, dialed, and looked up at the numbers on the outside of the front door.
Tony’s head jerked up from his chest when the phone on his desk rang. He watched one of its lights blink as it rang a second time, then lifted it to his ear.
A man’s voice said, “Call 911. A woman needs help in 1503. Quick!”
Stan hung up and bent down again next to Gladys. Her eyes were still shut, but her ankle continued to twitch.
He touched her shoulder and said, “Someone will be here to help.”
Stan dropped the necklace beside her, ran past her to the elevators, and pushed the button for the garage. He glared hard at the blinking numbers above the elevator as it ascended and forced himself not to look at the open doorway of the condo where he knew her twitching ankle extended.
“Come on!” he hissed. “Come on, come on, come on!”
Tony sat very still for a moment, frowning, after replacing the phone in its cradle. He stared down at it, his heart quickening as he realized who lived in unit 1503. He snatched the phone again and made the 911 call. By the time he’d finished, he was covered in whiskey-scented sweat, his armpits stained with it through his sports coat. Next, he called security, waited four rings for an answer, then explained what had happened and asked for assistance. He stumbled around the desk to the elevators, falling once to his knees. He pushed the button for the fifteenth floor and watched the symbols above the elevator alight from the “G” for garage to the “1” and slowly slide ajar.
Stan opened the side door in the garage a few inches, peeked around it to be sure no one was there, then pushed through it into the stairwell. As naturally as he could, he stuffed his gloved hands into his coverall pockets, climbed the stairs, and walked around the building in the ocean breeze to where his truck was parked. He looked through Cabrillo Tower’s front windows at the empty chair behind the desk and swore. He thought about the old woman on the floor of the condo doorway and of his grandmother. He thought about trying to convince his cousin to return the items they’d stolen from the cabins the first time they’d done that together. He thought about having stopped going to Confession at church afterwards.
Stan looked quickly back and forth, then trotted over to Cabrillo Tower and through its entrance into the empty foyer. He kept his gloves on while he shook out the pills and earrings from his toolbelt and set them on the desk in front of Tony’s chair. He hurried back to his truck as the sound of a siren approached. He banged his palm once on the steering wheel, slammed the truck into gear, and drove away.
While the elevator rose, Tony kept pushing the button for the top floor, but its speed didn’t change. “Hang in there, Gladys,” he whispered. “I’m almost there.” He took a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his sport coat and mopped his brow with it.
Gladys opened her eyes where she lay. The first thing she saw was the necklace a few inches from her nose. She remembered her husband giving it to her for their golden wedding anniversary. It was the only thought she had before closing her eyes and falling into darkness again.
William Cass has had over 180 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and earlier issues of Halfway Down the Stairs. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.
© 2019, William Cass