Authors: Libby Cudmore
To my mom and my dad,
and to everyone who's ever made me a mix
I've been searching high and low for you
Trying to track you down
âWarren Zevon, “Searching for a Heart”
othing good ever comes in the mail. After my lack of cash forced me to let my
subscription lapse, the only time I ever saw the name Jett Bennett was on cell phone bills and student loan payments. Six months ago a Swiss Colony Christmas catalog had arrived on the first chilly breath of fall, and I devoured it with the intensity of a teenage boy on his first porn site. I kept the battered pages hidden under my mattress long past Christmas and into spring, telling myself that this would be the year I splurged and ordered those beautiful petit fours. I told myself the same thing every year.
That day's mail brought two bills, a flyer for a new dry cleaner, and a small package wrapped in a magazine ad with a bunch of cartoon frogs and too much tape. I've got a smartphone, but I'm not too young to remember the exact weight and feel of a Maxell mix tape. They're just slightly heavier than a regular cassette, weighed down with love and angst, track lists thick with rubber cement and collage.
But this tape wasn't for me. It had a Binghamton postmark and was addressed to my downstairs neighbor, KitKat. She was a party on a purple ten-speed, a neat-banged brunette who baked red velvet cupcakes and pot brownies, read tarot, and had both an
NES and a Sega Genesis. For five hundred bucks a night, she'd pedal to your place and kick your party into stoned, sugared-up, future-knowing, eight-bit overdrive. Of course someone was sending her mix tapes. I was just surprised it wasn't packaged in a vintage suitcase or a mason jar filled with glitter.
I'd arrived in New York just over a year ago, with a master's in music journalism and big dreams of backstage passes and bustling newsrooms. But instead of following Toto on their first U.S. tour in nearly a decade or snagging an exclusive interview with Daft Punk, like my grandmother assured me I would do the moment I arrived in her city, I wound up with a third-shift temp gig proofreading for a private investigating firm. It was not as glamorous as Humphrey Bogart or Jim Rockford made it seem, but it beat waiting tablesâat the very least, it involved less small talk.
But what my grandmother did give me was a sublet of her rent-controlled apartment in the Barter Street district of Brooklyn, just east of Williamsburg and, judging by how people dressed, slightly beyond Thunderdome. She was traveling on a transcontinental honeymoon with her new husband, Royale, and I had been on the verge of getting kicked out of the eleven-person, four-bedroom artist loft I had been living in over in Williamsburg. For $350 a month, I'd gotten an inflatable twin mattress between two curtains, two milk crates for storage, one shelf in our room's mini fridge, a five-minute shower at 10:25
and a half hour of television every Tuesday and Saturday. I'd once woken up to my left-side neighbor filming me for one of the random-image films he made us watch during his Monday night TV time, while my right-side neighbor snorted a lot of coke and screamed at her canvases because she said the fear in her paint made for bolder colors. One of the girls at MetroReaders, the temp agency that kept me in Trader Joe's and Netflix, had known the apartment had an opening, and I'd conned my way in by telling them I was a performance artist. But just before my grandmother left, I suspected they were catching on to the fact that my “performance” consisted of eating pesto and watching movies on my laptop. I
managed to get out before they called one of their “artist meetings,” where they all talked shit about someone under the guise of intervention. I saw it coming and had moved into my grandmother's place before they woke up the next afternoon.
KitKat was the first person I'd met when I moved in; she showed up at my door with a basket of muffins and lightbulbs, a list of takeout places, and the offer to show me around the neighborhood when I got settled. In the six months I'd been there, we'd only hung out a few times, but I liked her in a big-sister kinda way.
I loved the place, with its enormous claw-foot bathtub and tiny kitchen, and there was a part of me that hoped my grandmother would move into Royale's penthouse on Ninetieth and Central Park West, allowing me to stay there forever. I could easily afford the $700 a month she'd paid since 1975, when Barter Street was a working-class neighborhood made up of beat cops and public school teachers instead of a hipster paradise of art-house baristas and record store clerks.
My grandmother was, by far, the oldest person in her four-story building, a rent-controlled holdout who made tea when the other, younger tenants came by to borrow her chairs for their parties. When I first moved in, every person I met told me how cool they thought my grandmother wasâthey loved her antique china set, her huge collection of art books, her stories of what the neighborhood was like when she'd first signed the lease. In a way, I suppose, my grandmother was the original Barter Street hipster, which probably explains why she stayed on the block as long as she did. She was even in on the Barter Street system, helping the neighbors' kids or siblings with math homework in exchange for help fixing her computer or setting up her TV.
But she had been single for nearly forty years after my dad's father died, and, in exchange for borrowing her vintage lace tablecloths for a photo shoot, one of her neighbors had helped her set up a dating profile on a site for mature singles. Almost immediately, she met Royale, and they were married a year after their
first date. He, a former Manhattan law partner, had whisked her away to visit all the sights that she, a modest-living CUNY math professor, had only ever seen on the Travel Channel, leaving me to sublet.
I took my mail upstairs and left it in a single pile on the kitchen table. I would sort it later, but the afternoon was getting late, and that meant KitKat was probably baking. Dropping by with a piece of her mail would surely land me a cupcake, a cup of tea, and a chance to chat at the table she'd decoupaged with pictures of food. All I could hope was that she wasn't baking vegan, gluten-free bricks for Perk Up!, the coffeehouse at the end of our block, where all the too-hip mommies drank soy lattes and tried to out-mommy each other. KitKat insisted Perk Up! used to be a cool place, filled with straight-edge types writing screenplays, but all the ex-hipsters who'd wed in handfasting ceremonies, where the guests dressed like Coachella rejects, needed someplace to blog about the organic bamboo nappies Artisan and Corindolyn were wearing. Better there than Egg School, where the rest of us brunched.
If she were any other neighbor, I would have just left the package on the table next to the mailboxes, but KitKat had established, early on, that she didn't want her mail left out. But she did it in her quirky KitKat way, bringing me an envelope of mine that had gotten put in her box by mistake, along with a tiny bottle of sparkling lemonade. She explained that if I got a piece of her mail, I should bring it right to her, and it made enough sense that I didn't question it.
But just in case she had left to make a delivery, I took her extra key. Whenever she went away, she left me in charge of feeding her fat old cat, Baldrick, paying me with a pancake breakfast and a week's worth of Nintendo rentals, which still wasn't enough time for me to beat
Legend of Zelda II
. But that's how things were done around hereâcash was seen as a vulgar necessity, something strangers exchanged because they didn't trust you to come through with the offer to fix their laptop or babysit on their an
niversary. Even Egg School, where a table on Sunday had more trade value than a vintage British bicycle, seemed reluctant to take actual, real payment, and every so often held pledge drives where food was traded for services at a later date. The system had taken a little getting used to, but now there were times I had to remind myself that the subway's MetroCard machine didn't take album reviews as payment for goods rendered.
Outside her apartment, I could hear Baldrick yowling through the door and I panicked, wondering if she'd gone away and I had forgotten to feed him. For a while, it had seemed like she was going out of town every weekend, but she hadn't asked me to watch him in a few weeks. Or had she? How long had he been down here alone?
“KitKat?” I called, knocking. “KitKat, I've got some of your mail.”
When she didn't answer, I unlocked the door. Baldrick got out of my way and ran into the kitchen. I followed him, and there was KitKat, sprawled out on the linoleum, blood splattered across her cabinets and pink oven like gory spin art. She was still wearing the David Bowie T-shirt apron I'd traded to her for baking a red velvet birthday cake for my friend Sid, but someone had done a hard job on her face. Her marble rolling pin was sticking up in the sink, the water stained pink with her blood. I choked back sick, shuddering hard. This couldn't be real. This had to be a dream brought on by a cop show marathon with Sid, too much red wine, and work anxiety all jumbled into one terrible nightmare I was going to wake up from any second. . . .
But the acrid smoke billowing out of the oven told me it was anything but a bad dream. She'd long ago disabled her smoke detector; it could have been daysâor a fireâbefore anyone found her down here. If I was going to turn it off, I was going to have to step over her.
“Sorry, KitKat,” I muttered. “I'll call the cops soon, I promise.”
I took two deep breaths, counted to five, and made my way to the stove. I turned off the heat and opened the door, coughing.
Waving the smoke away, I saw a burned pan of brownies. Whoever had come for KitKat had left without her stash.
I put on an oven mitt and gathered up the pan like I was collecting a dish after a potluck. Baldrick was howling from the living room in a way that broke my heart. I couldn't just leave him there, crying next to the body of his cat-momma, possibly to step all over her crime scene more than he already had. I took him up under my other arm, cooing as best I could to comfort him. I carried the cat and the pan upstairs, Baldrick howling, the halls filling with the pungent scent of weed and scorched chocolate. Inside my apartment, I set Baldrick down and double-bolted the door. I took the pan to the window and tossed the brownies into the alley.
Then I ran to the bathroom and threw up everything I'd eaten possibly ever.
Baldrick wandered in and perched on the edge of the bathtub to watch me retch.
“Next time, hold back my hair,” I gasped, slamming the lid closed and flushing. “What the hell happened to her?”
Baldrick told me everything, but unfortunately, I didn't speak Cat. I finally managed to stand on shaking legs, wobbled around until I found my phone, and called the police. It wasn't until after I hung up that I realized I still had her tape in the back pocket of my skinny black jeans.