The Mystery of
Quercus Gardens Apartments
by Patricia Hilliard - Copyright June 2017
Chapter 1 – An Unusual Day (2828 words)
Beth Murphy was hoping for the best. It was a chilly October day. She loved autumn. She had noticed that the leaves were beginning to turn colors on some of the trees. But this week, she felt a certain loss creeping into her life. A delicate, secretive, unbelievable loss. All day she had tried to deny it, went about her chores like it was a normal day. It started out like a normal day. Beth enjoyed living in Quercus Gardens Apartments, a charming garden apartment complex with lots of oak trees. The complex was named Quercus after the species Quercus rubra, which is Latin for Red Oak, the state tree of New Jersey. The garden apartments were surrounded by wide green lawns and tall oak trees. In autumn, the oak leaves turned bright red and hundreds of acorns would fall to the ground. Squirrels would jump and frolic through the leaves like fur covered children gathering and hiding the nuts for winter. The squirrels and the trees gave Beth a feeling of being connected to the beauty and endurance of nature. It was a nice place to call home. Today was laundry day. Beth lifted her laundry basket and strolled out the door and across the street to the laundry room that was provided for tenant use. She sorted the clothes, dumped them into the washers with some soap and turned on the machines. She sat on a plastic chair and read the news while the clothes danced around the agitator. When the bell went off, she transported the clothes into the clothes dryer. The warm humid air filled the laundry room inviting her to relax. This gave her an idea. She stood and moved into a few yoga poses, stretching her arms and legs. She let go of her worries. But soon they drifted back. It couldn’t be happening. Not now. She was not in the mood for it. When the clothes were dry, she opened the door of the machine and pulled them out. Some were so hot they almost burned her hands and arms, but still she embraced them. Oh, how she enjoyed that sense of warmth that made her feel safe and loved. She folded the clothes and marveled at how, having everything clean again, filled her with a sense of accomplishment. Now she gathered the folded clothes and placed them snugly into her laundry basket. Out the door she went, looking up at the orange and red leaves of the mighty oak trees against a bright blue sky. She crossed the street to her apartment. Opening her apartment door, she was greeted by a cool emptiness. Not what she expected. It was October, the heat should be on by now. She listened for the old clicking sounds that the heating system made when it was responding well. But not a sound came to her ears. She sniffed the air for the smell of the hot metal radiators that were a part of this warm-water heating system that sent heat into every apartment of this sixteen-apartment building. But the cold emptiness lingered. It was Friday afternoon and if something needed a repair, it should be done soon. She should not deny the possibility any longer. The furnace was downstairs in that mysterious basement, which she had never entered. It was not working properly and the residents were facing the possibility of going the whole night without heat. Worse than that, if someone didn’t act quickly, they would be without heat for the duration of the weekend. The superintendent of this complex took weekends off. Monday was the beginning of business hours. If the call wasn’t made immediately, there would be no help until Monday. Beth quickly put the warm clean clothes away. She lifted the phone and made a call at 4:00 p.m. She wondered if the superintendent, the “Super” as everyone called him, Ramon Perez, would pick up the phone. The ring tone repeated several times then the machine answered. “This is Ramon Perez, Super for Quercus Gardens, please leave your name, phone number and a brief message. I will get back to you as soon as possible. If this is an emergency…..” Beth left a message about the lack of heat in her apartment at this number. She called the emergency number and left another message there.
She thought about Ramon Perez. What would he be doing right now? Was he looking at his watch and declaring himself off duty for the weekend? He was a quiet, reserved person who said little. His dark eyes always looked angry. Beth always felt like she was bothering him every time she called about a problem. It would have been easier to let her husband make the call, but he was at work. Her messages went into the answering system. Beth waited until 5:00 p.m. With no answer from Perez, she knew it was going to be a long cold weekend.
A knock came at the door. Beth sat and listened to it. Perez always called first. How strange to hear a knock at the door. Who could it be? Everyone used the phone. Call first. That was the unwritten rule of modern society. People had busy lives and you shouldn’t expect them to be home. You shouldn’t expect them to be willing to come to the door, dressed properly and ready to greet you. It was a new era and only the old folks still knocked at the door and expected a positive response. The knocking continued. Beth went to the living room window to look down from her second floor apartment. She could just make out the slouched posture of a person standing down below at the door. She turned from the window. She never liked opening the door when she was home alone. But what could she do? She went down the stairs to the front door. She opened it and braced herself. There stood a short, chunky man. She recognized him as a neighbor. “Hello, don’t mean to disturb you, I know it’s inconvenient, but have you been noticing any loss of heat in your apartment? My wife, Arlene, says it’s been getting steadily colder all day. I just now checked the radiators. Put my hand on them and don’t feel a bit of heat.” It was Ted Dillon from apartment A1. Beth had seen him many times. Last winter when the snow was knee-deep, they had joked about it as they dug their cars out. She hadn’t seen him much since except to wave as they passed on the sidewalk. “I’ve noticed it, but was hoping it would come on later this evening,” Beth explained. Ted was a typical looking Irish-American with light brown hair and blue eyes. He stood on the porch dressed in a work uniform with his name tag “Ted” above the shirt pocket. He was one of those guys you see walking among cars on hydraulic lifts at auto repair centers. “Arrrrh,” he groaned. “We need to do something about this place, you know what I mean?” Beth nodded. “We need to do something, seriously, now,” Ted repeated. Ted had lived in Quercus Gardens Apartments for about fifteen years. Beth and her husband, Bob, for only two years. They had noticed that the superintendent of the property, Ramon Perez, seemed to aggravate everyone with some negligence in the maintenance of their apartments. Ted Dillon went on to explain how he had, over the years, angrily endured a leaky roof, a broken down laundry machine, a flooded parking lot, and numerous dead batteries in the fire prevention alarms—always something.
This winter it looked like the problem would be a lack of heat. Other problems affected a few people here and there, so most of the tenants could remain indifferent, too busy on their jobs to focus on someone else’s problem. But when the heat disappeared throughout a whole building with winter coming, it got everyone’s attention. Ted stopped and looked angrily at Beth.
Beth raised her eyebrows in response, then added, “I tried to call. No response from Perez.” “I called too and so did apartment A6. Perez is a pain in the butt.” “I’ll get on the computer and see what kind of help I can find,” Beth promised. “Please! Do something,” Ted said. “I’m going back to get that electric space heater out of our closet.” Beth closed the door and climbed up the stairs. She felt it was up to her to solve the problem. What did Ted want? Someone to come in with a gun and offer to shoot Perez if he didn’t fix the problem right away? Furnaces break. Parts take time to be delivered. Beth made a cup of tea and sat down at the computer. On the internet she found a group that was supposed to help people who rent apartments. The site referred to them as “tenant advocates.” What an idea, advocating for tenants. Who would care to help renters?
Beth clicked through and took a look at the web site. The group was called the Tenant Action Network or TAN. The site suggested that tenants should act together to get the landlord to make necessary repairs on the rental properties. Tenants needed to take action so they could get their money’s worth in housing and “peaceful enjoyment,” as the legal terms described it.
The first thing tenants needed to do was call a meeting to discuss their issues. Unfortunately, the apartments of Quercus Gardens were too small to hold much of a meeting. The apartment complex didn’t even offer a community room. The last big room that Beth was in was the laundry room. She sipped her cup of hot tea and thought. It would have to do. She put on her jacket and dashed down the sidewalk. A cool wind was now pushing heavy gray clouds into the northwest sky. Crazy how weather could change so suddenly. She rang the doorbell. Ted opened it. Beth began her explanation, “We would need to get everyone in this building to come to a meeting. I was thinking, maybe the laundry room across the street? We could bring our own lawn chairs.” She went on describing the possibility of getting a tenant advocate to come to the meeting and advise them. He listened gratefully. “That sounds good, Beth. Can you set up the meeting? We really need to do something about this landlord.” “Sure.” Beth replied. She could see that Ted was happy. She felt good that she had given him hope. Beth went back to her apartment, hung her jacket in the closet and sat down at the computer. She brought up that internet site again, signed up, paid the dues and learned the details about what they needed to do to get some repairs and heat in the building. She laughed to herself. He husband Bob would come home to find her deep in yet another adventure. Guided by the web site information, Beth knew she would need to let everyone in her building know about the meeting in the laundry room. The web site allowed her to download a standard template flyer. She looked at the calendar. If her neighbors woke up tomorrow in a cold apartment, they would easily be persuaded to come to a meeting this Saturday afternoon. She typed the day and time and place into the flyer. “Bring your own lawn or beach chair” she advised them. She put an email where she could be reached. She hoped people didn’t mind meeting in a laundry room.
Fortunately, her old printer was working well enough to print all the flyers. Each door opened to two apartments, one upstairs and one down, ten apartments in one building. Task completed, she shut down the computer and leaned back in her chair. Beth hated feeling helpless. It felt good to know there was something a person could do. They didn’t have to put up with paying for services that they needed and were not getting. Now she had to get the flyers out to her neighbors.
She grabbed her jacket, stuck a roll of tape in her pocket and went out the door. It took only a few minutes to reach the five front doors of the ten apartments in the building. She taped a flyer onto each door. Just like that. It was done. She had gotten the word out. Now it occurred to her that it was getting late. What should she fix for supper? Her husband, Bob, would be coming home soon. He worked in a grocery warehouse, operating a jack which he used to lift and move large boxes of cereal or soap onto trucks which hauled the goods to local grocery stores. As Beth poked through the vegetable bin of her refrigerator, she considered what Bob might say about her impulsive action of signing up with this TAN, the tenant advocacy group. He’d be in favor of it in principle. After all, he was a shop steward in his union at the warehouse, so to that extent she knew he would be in support. She also knew that he sometimes worried that she would get involved in something way over her head. With the internet at hand, it was always easy to get involved in causes and campaigns. Beth giggled. Being unemployed gave her plenty of time to get involved. Back when she was a sales rep at a printing company, Beth never thought of being active. With the economy on the rocks again, Beth was spending most of her day on the internet looking for work. She was also taking college courses online in hopes of boosting her knowledge and skills, making her more valuable in the job market. There was that uneasy feeling again. The temperature of the room was drifting downward. A stronger wind was now pressing against the big window in the living room. It seeped in around the frame and along the cracks next to the air conditioner—an appliance that saved them in summer, but ruined the integrity of the wall in winter. The whole apartment soon felt empty and cold. Abandon. Bob might not notice it right away, especially if she heated up the gas oven and made some bread. The heat might just last the night. But could she bake bread every evening just to keep the place warm? She turned on the oven then pulled out a package of cornmeal. Soon she whipped together a small cornbread which she placed in the oven. After sizing up the quality and quantity of the meats and vegetables in her refrigerator, she mentally put together a menu. She pulled a skillet out of the cabinet and placed it on a burner. Soon the kitchen smelled like sautéing onions and oregano. As she stirred the onions, she dumped some chopped red pepper into the skillet. At the bottom of the stairs, a key turned in the lock. Bob’s voice called, “I’m home!” “I’m so glad, dear,” Beth said going into the hallway. “Ah yes, and I had a great day at work as usual.” “I’m sure you did.” Beth knew Bob’s cheerful response had more sarcasm then truthfulness. She waited until Bob came to the top of the stairs. His stood with his shoulders slumped and gave out a sigh. “I’m glad it’s the weekend. I need a beer.” He gave Beth a kiss on the cheek. Beth smiled. He hung his coat in the closet and went to the refrigerator for the beer. “Ah, the smell of good home cooking.” Beth returned to the kitchen and lifted the lid to stir in some chunks of pre-cooked chicken breast and frozen broccoli. Everything was going well. Bob leaned against the counter and sipped his beer. He began his “stories of the day” at work, assessing comments made by co-workers, admitting his curiosity about a notice on the bulletin board, and complaining about some equipment that broke down. “I had a good day, too,” Beth announced. “I joined the Tenant Action Network and I created a notice of a meeting which I put under the door of all our neighbors. We have a meeting to attend tomorrow to discuss problems in this apartment complex.” “Why would you do all this?” Bob asked.
“There’s no heat in our building and there might not be any until next week."
“What?” “No heat, no hot water,” Beth stated watching Bob’s face. “Oh no, I just wanted to eat, shower and go to bed,” Bob sighed. Beth grimaced, “I was thinking, you could go to the gym tonight to take a shower.” “Honey, I’m glad you’re taking action on this thing. We can’t put up with this night after night. Besides, the holiday is coming.” He shouted his favorite curse words and turned toward the bathroom. “I guess I’ll have to wash-up a bit in cold water here. I’m too tired to go to the gym tonight.”