Getting Rid of the Bernsteins

by M.W. Johnston

M. W. Johnston grew up in Nova Scotia, and currently lives in Toronto. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Antigonish Review and Vallum.

I grew up a long way from here, and came to the city as a young man, to make my way, and was lucky to be groomed for the role I now inhabit, which is that of rentier, and which I inherited from my father, now deceased. An owner of property on two continents, my father kept a fastidious building, and brought up a son with a corresponding fondness for rules. Like him, I keep a list of the most pertinent regulations in the building’s lobby, above the mailboxes. The list is short, which makes it effective. I ask that tenants not use the laundry after nine p.m. because the machines vibrate against the basement walls. I ask that tenants not smoke, not one bit. And I have a strict policy on pets, which is that I allow none. This last rule I have written separately, in large letters, on good thick paper, posted throughout the building: NO PETS!! it says.

My fondness for this last rule is lifelong. NO PETS was etched in brass above the elevator buttons in the first apartment I can remember. It is a good rule, because there is nothing complicated about it. (If you find it complicated, you are thinking too hard.) Even so, there are many buildings in this district that have tried to go halfway with the thing, making room for confusion. You may own a pet, these places will tell you, but that pet may not shed on the hall carpet. Or you may own a pet, but if that pet makes the least noise after seven-thirty … but you understand my meaning. I find these specifications shoddy. My solution is better. These other buildings have understood, like I do, that the issue is at heart nothing more than the relationship between a landlord and his tenants—nothing more! But they have gone the other way with it from there. What I do is cut out the middleman.

… there are many buildings in this district that have tried to go halfway with the thing, making room for confusion. You may own a pet, these places will tell you, but that pet may not shed on the hall carpet.

And I don’t think it would be immodest to tell you I have been doing so successfully, and with no little skill, for many years. Each middleman who sneaks his or her way into my building, I find—be this dog, cat, chicken, or something else entirely. As a landowner I am proficient enough, but at this other sport I am cunning. I’ll give you an example. A distant relative of the family I wish to speak about today had a kitten, and one summer this kitten began, every other week or so, to make a little tour of the hallway on 4F, rubbing herself on the wainscoting, leaving behind hairballs, and seeking beneath a given door for the edge of a welcome mat, which she would claw out and tear half to pieces in the mindless scratching rapture to which that species is prone. How could I have predicted, one evening, that this kitten would choose 411’s mat—and that 411’s tenant, Ms. Liebestraüm, would be away visiting her family on the coast? Meticulous effort is the best answer I can give, but even that leaves out the strategic use of chopped mint and the construction of a tiny pair of manacles, not to mention the time it took to wait, in the deep hollow darkness of Ms. L’s apartment, perched over the crack beneath the door.

In forty years of brilliant captures, detainments, and deportations to owners’ relatives or humane society shelters the luring of little Patches (Patricia) McEnroe was my masterpiece. 

Yet no sooner do I consider this proud moment than I am reminded of the Bernstein family proper. They have occupied my mind frequently these past months. In fact the memory itself is only one of any number of things that might suddenly remind me of the Bernsteins. Guilt works that way: it signs its name to everything. Not that it bothers me so much, at least not usually. Sometimes, on rare nights, following a certain bad dream, I will be bothered—but then it always passes quickly. In this dream something has just woke me; probably, I think, it is someone come to deliver the rent. I dress, and find my clipboard. My apartment is dark, but the thought that someone has come with the rent in the middle of the night does not strike me as strange. Rather, going about my routine in complete darkness feels, not just normal, but entirely preferable, and I move with the ease of long habit. But when I pull open my door it is to find, in the hall’s dreary light, a menagerie, llamas in the elevator, strange large birds nesting on doorframes, exotic specimens cramming the stairwell. Even dreaming, I know why they are there. It is to show me that the best years of my life are behind me. I will wake, and none of my movements will be easy, and as the pains of middle age set in I will lay thinking about the Bernsteins.

He stood off to the edge of the group: three adults, a baby wrapped half to death in blue blankets, and four grubby-looking youngsters. I spread my arms wide to welcome them.

I will ask myself where they could be now, whether they have dispersed, and what has become of Simon, the adolescent, to whom alone I had any friendly attachment. Of Simon’s whereabouts, and his prospects, and his future, I am most curious. Of course I don’t dare try to look any of them up. Even the best maintained building has its ghosts.


He took beautiful pictures. That I remember most clearly. He was twelve and had procured from who knew where a nice camera, easily the price of two months’ rent. When the Bernsteins arrived en masse in my office it was slung around his neck on a brown strap, shutter against his stomach.

He stood off to the edge of the group: three adults, a baby wrapped half to death in blue blankets, and four grubby-looking youngsters. I spread my arms wide to welcome them. “The Bernsteins,” I said. None of them stood taller than five feet.

The father cleared his throat. He was what is sometimes called a “town bear,” a colloquial expression I try to avoid, as it can be taken as an insult suggesting incomplete civilization, or that Bob did not belong in the city. But its meaning was nevertheless so obvious in him, in the way he peered at me, in the suspension of his great sad shaggy neck, that he seemed to have been made for the express purpose of illustrating it. Bob was woodsy; he had the woods all over him.

“We are looking for your three-bedroom,” he said. “Hello, sir, I am Bob, this is Alice, my wife, and these are my cubs. My sister-in-law, Trudy—” here he gestured toward the other adult, who grinned— “found your listing. We have heard that you let rooms to—that you are considerate to whom you allow to rent.” He scratched his nose.

Apparently my reputation had preceded me. I got up from my chair and pulled myself around to the front of the desk.

“We have had difficulty,” Bob continued, “finding accommodations.”

“Where are you from, Bob?” I asked him.

I must admit that the answer to this question interested me less than the way Bob chose to respond to it. I will kindly show to the door any prospective tenant who answers vaguely about his own past. The Bernstein family hailed from a small town nestled against Lake Huron; Bob was, or had recently been, in the timber trade, and had moved to the city on a promotion that took him out of the woods and into distribution.

“I am still adjusting, we all are, really,” he said.

“Naturally,” I told him.

“For reference we have Mr. and Mrs. H——,” and here Bob named a couple I have known for many years, dear friends and landowners themselves, who maintain a perennially stuffed brownstone closer to the downtown core. “We have heard all about you, really.”

“That is fine,” I said, “but you will also have heard all about my rates. Eight tenants, even seven with an infant, is too many for a three bedroom—so the security deposit will have to be adjusted. I also require that my tenants maintain content insurance—you are familiar with the premiums for large families in this city?”

“All that is fine—yes,” said Bob.

“And you are aware of the strict rules in this building, and can ensure that your family will abide by them and not create disturbances?”

“Yes,” said Bob.

“And specifically that I allow no pets, of any sort, not concealed or out in the open, not taken in sympathetically, or inherited, or under any circumstances whatsoever?”

“Mr. Kaspartine,” said Bob, “I assure you that I and my family looked carefully over the rules before contacting you. We are a gentle lot.” A tenant will tell you things like this, and you must know what they mean. Gentle lot—he meant that I will not find a permanent record attached to any of the adults. “We look forward to making a good impression with you,” said Bob, meaning this was their last chance; there are only two other buildings in this district that will rent to bears, and even those shy away from Ursus arctos, and at least one of them was, I knew, currently full. “As for the money, we have come prepared to pay.”

He was doing all he could to appeal to my sympathy without letting his family know he was doing so.

Of the meaning of this last remark my guess was and remains that they had been unanimously turned away. The city is not a kind place to outsiders, and not everyone has the ability, like I do, to blend for the most part into the crowd. Bob’s eyes were fastened on mine. “The H——s said to come to you specifically, said not to call.” Bob was saying by this: You too came to this city, and who was it who kept you afloat?

But here Bob had presumed incorrectly. For no one had helped me, I had had to find my own way, and if not for the title deed to this place would have stowed myself on the first ship back to the southern hemisphere. Nonetheless it was hard to envy him. I was speaking to a bear who had come a very long way from whatever clearing-by-the-stream he’d started in. He was doing all he could to appeal to my sympathy without letting his family know he was doing so. His interview for the apartment was a balancing act. “Mr. Bernstein,” I said, “let us take a look at those references.” They moved in the following weekend.


I hardly heard from them for two weeks, and kept up with the many daily tasks required of me, for owning property is, though seldom acknowledged as such, real work amounting to more than a full-time job. In this time I saw no more of the Bernsteins than a troupe of backpacks filing away down a stairwell and, from my third-floor window, Bob’s hunched form waiting for the bus. A couple of tenants mentioned to me that there was a boy taking pictures in the alley. But I did not meet Simon again until the incident with the furnace vents.

I was in the middle of my afternoon rounds, finishing the replacement of a hall bulb in front of the Stefanopolis apartment, when I felt a tug on my pant leg. I looked down; there was Simon at the base of my stepladder. His camera hung around his neck. “The oldest Bernstein child!” I said. “What can I do for you?”

The elderly Ms. Stefanopolis had been observing my progress from her doorway, and she answered for Simon—or seemed to, for she was in the middle of lecturing me, in woolly Mediterranean—for she knew no English—about the lifespan of the bulbs I was using. “Ms. Stefanopolis,” I said, “you see there is a young man here who seems to have an urgent question; I ask that you please excuse me.” Ms. Stefanopolis paused, and then resumed her lecturing; I was not to be excused. “Never mind her,” I told Simon as I descended the ladder. “What is it you need?”

“Madra’s gotten loose upstairs, and we need a net,” Simon said.

“Madra,” I said, “who is Madra?”

In answer to this he pulled up his camera and scrolled through his little library of photos. “This,” he said, “is Madra.”

I squinted at the small picture, but could not make out anything.

A necessary aside: I know I have introduced Simon as a fledgling artist. But his photo made no visual sense to me. The Bernsteins were blondish-brown, with ruddy complexions, and what I saw in the frame was no different. Yet the image itself was blurry; its subject, appearing to wear a blue smock, may have only been viewed behind some nondescript blue formation, or even the sky itself. What was offered as evidence of Madra looked more like a photograph of a painting than one of a person. Accordingly, I have often suppressed this detail in retellings of my story. For it’s true that some artists do, through artificial means, add a blurring effect to their photos—a fact I did not know at the time. I was not even used to the size of the image, being unfamiliar with digital cameras. I admit I flipped the camera upside-down to make sense of what I saw, which prompted Ms. Stefanopolis to investigate—and of course she uttered something in the tone of a positive identification. Gradually I became aware that I had become the center of attention; meanwhile the blue smockish thing continued to swim in its frame. I could not help but consider what my confusion would look like to Simon: the doddering of a man long past his prime.

What was offered as evidence of Madra looked more like a photograph of a painting than one of a person. Accordingly, I have often suppressed this detail in retellings of my story.

But then it came to me, and I clucked my tongue. Whatever this image was, Madra was the Bernstein baby. The image resolved itself before my eyes: it was the baby, and my confusion had been due to a trick of the photo’s lighting, which, being taken almost “against the day,” as I later learned they call it, had made Madra look soft at the edges. There was the baby. And—loose! “Madra!” I cried, “of course!”

“Stuck!” cried Simon, nodding vigorously.

“We must not waste an iota!” I cried. “Ms. Stefanopolis, you will have to excuse me. This light is back to normal, and should only be coming on after six in the evenings during the winter. If it comes on earlier, call me. But if it comes on later, also, call me. As for the kind of bulbs I use, you might be interested to know that these are actually the longest-lasting, most environmentally-safe incandescent bulbs on the market today; the fault belongs not to the bulbs but to the wiring, which I will have to investigate. Though of course I must tend to this issue first.”

Ms. Stefanopolis, her neck arched back, her ears flattened, gave no indication of having heard me. But then again, it is her right to refuse to listen, just as it is my right to assume she has heard me correctly. These Stefanopolises—and don’t think I am being insensitive, for I know of another family of Stefanopolises half a block away, lively spaniels all, who have naturalized completely, three generations capable of perfect English—these Stefanopolises and I go back a long, long time, and nothing has ever come between us that would not filter out in the wash. For the record, she was still speaking, had not this whole time ceased, and her voice followed Simon and I as we hurried down the hall.

Madra had got into a floor register. She could not be coaxed out.

A word about floor registers: a long time ago, before my father bought this place, the corner apartments 202 and 302 had been ingeniously united by the building’s owner. The second story’s apartment door was walled off from the hallway, a staircase was erected near the kitchen, and the whole thing came together to make a beautiful apartment for the owner’s family. Because it was not opened to the top floor other than above the staircase, because its owner was overzealous about his privacy, and no doubt because of some other reasons I have not yet discovered, the place was heated by its own furnace, for which floor registers and adjustable vents were installed on floor three. They adjust with a little metal wand that turns on an axis like the hand of a clock. My father refused to live in this place, but after he and mother passed on I thought it irresponsible to entrust the cleaning and maintenance of so much square footage to anyone other than myself.

The vents do not drop down into the furnace proper, or else Madra would be dead and I would have no story to tell. She had landed on an intermediary section of flat-bottomed pipe, about ten inches across, which extends horizontally from vent to vent. To reach the furnace from the vent, one must not only fall, but burrow.

Which was, when Simon and I reached the third floor, exactly what the Bernsteins were trying to prevent from happening. Alice’s sister, Trudy, had her arm shoulder-deep into the opening—she had left the vent cover on the carpet, I noticed, which would need vacuuming later—and was pulling her way toward a hernia.  Alice was prying off the next nearest register with a screwdriver. The rest of them had assembled behind Alice, to watch.

“What is going on here?” I demanded.

No one paid me the slightest attention. But I had barely opened my mouth to repeat the question when Trudy bellowed, “She’s coming your way, Alice—grab her, grab her!” Alice flung off the vent cover in a final thrust, reached down, and came up with—a sock. Everyone gasped. I must admit my mind was racing. But then behind them all the stairwell opened and a golden blur shot toward us, lightning-quick. I barely made it out before it reached the exposed vent and dove, headlong, into it.

We endured a terrible silence.

Then, from the vent nearest to Trudy, a blue round shape appeared, pushing itself up out of the hole. The top half of Madra followed, cooing. Behind her emerged, dust-covered, Ms. Stefanopolis.

The vents do not drop down into the furnace proper, or else Madra would be dead and I would have no story to tell.

Everyone cheered. Even Madra cheered, or made a noise like cheering. It was a high-pitched, throaty warble. The vents were old; she was sooty, and covered in the blue thing, which bunched strangely around her legs, and tapered, I was noticing for the first time, around her middle. She flapped her little blue-covered arms and the Bernstein family swarmed her. Ms. Stefanopolis retreated to a calm distance, and sat. She was a very old lady. Simon said, “Madra will pry her way into anything,” and promptly sealed the afternoon with a photo before joining them.


Anyway, I said he was good at taking photos, and here is what I mean. Not long after that day I found, slipped under my front door, a small packet of his pictures. I shuffled through them carefully in my kitchen. Other than a couple of obligatory shots of his family, Simon had a tendency toward the abstract. The lengths and widths of my building vanished in stark greyscale. The front door seemed the entryway to an occult gathering. My hallways, from a low angle, became assembly lines. A final cluster of pictures captured pigeons alighting in the alley.

I did not know what to do with this gift. To my mind it had come from nowhere. But I would not be in the position of landlord if I did not find a timely solution for whatever might arise in my social relationships. I framed all the photographs and hung them in the hallway across from my bedroom door, in a decorative spiral. I then tried to take a picture of the finished product. I wound up deciding to balance my old camera on a folded stepladder, and set the timer (this took several tries) so that I could enter the shot.

In the photo I am standing, hunched to ensure my gaunt frame is well within the picture’s boundaries. My rust-red hair has already begun to grey. I am giving a thumbs-up. I look sheepish; my long arms and broad grin give me away as my father’s child.

The delivery of this image set off what became, looking back, one of the better friendships I have had in my life. A day later he showed up at my door with his camera. “It was cold today,” he said. “You can see it in the light.” I let him in and told him to wait on the couch while I made some hot cocoa. “Trudy is coming,” he said, and preempting my question (Who is Trudy?) the aunt made her way in behind him with a tray of cookies.

“We thought you might want a snack,” she said.beautif

I thought to grab my camera, and when I returned, Simon was spreading out some of his photos, at Trudy’s urging, on the coffee table. “Simon would like to show you his work,” Trudy said.

We looked over his photographs together. Their theme seemed to involve the laundry room, but it was hard to know just why he had chosen it, and I thought it would be impolite to ask. In any case what I saw was unlike the laundry room in all but the most necessary respects. I recognized the machines, the coin-slots, the wall-mounted soap dispenser, but only after the fact. Eventually Simon stacked them up and brought out a book of pictures by some famous artist I had not heard of. “This is like what I was going for,” he said.

Trudy was present chiefly, it seemed, for moral support, though in the city it is always possible that someone just tags along to something, as though to fill the space; in any case, by the third meeting, Simon had come alone. By the fourth I had subscribed to a small journal of photography, and felt that I knew at least enough of what the boy expected out of his pictures to be able to respond to him. Even now, I will admit, I do not really know anything substantial about photography, other than what Simon and these magazines have taught me. It has always seemed like one of those curious hobbies one has to master before it becomes difficult.

By the fourth [meeting] I had subscribed to a small journal of photography, and felt that I knew at least enough of what the boy expected out of his pictures to be able to respond to him.

In all it was good to have these days to look forward to. This was ten years ago, before the re-regulations, and you may remember what it was like to live in this city, and perhaps you even have some idea of how it felt to own property. On my first floor, in the bachelor suites, tenants were dropping like flies. I was running advertisements in half the shops in the neighbourhood. No one could afford me, and I could not afford to house them. Vacancy gnawed at my conscience. I know rentiers who at this time fled the city altogether, and those who bought themselves into thin air, and crashed. I don’t have the wingspan for that sort of thing. I had to endure.

And not long into my endurance, the building was host to a number of problems, none of which were that serious by themselves, but which collectively suggested only one thing.

My pet-less residence suffered a slew of pet problems.

Coming up the east staircase one afternoon I spotted paw-prints on the landing of 4F. I am no slouch when it comes to prints: immediately I set down my bags and went to grab the supplies necessary to transfer them to a piece of paper for further identification. Digging through my closet I realized I could just take a photo of the prints, and quickly grabbed my camera and headed out into the hall. But at the landing, I found nothing other than my grocery bags. The prints had been red and large, canine-seeming. Coming back downstairs with my bags, I saw that my apartment door was shut, the boot I had used to prop it open lay in the hall. The doors in this building lock from the outside automatically. In the rush to see the phantom print I had locked myself out.

I chalked up this incident to an over-busy schedule and a correspondingly exhausted imagination. Then I tried to forget about it, to the extent that I am allowed, in my position, to forget about such things: I set out flyers in the foyer, and kept an eye on the carpet. Nothing came of it. But it was at least three days later that I realized I had put a typo on the flyers, pluralizing “prints” when my message should have read, in the singular, simply

I HAVE LOCATED A PAW PRINT ON THE CARPET OF THIS APARTMENT BUILDING

THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE

THERE ARE NO PETS ALLOWED IN THIS BUILDING.

Thus I began to fear some subtle change in my mental faculties at this point.

And then something happened which unsettled me greatly. Mrs. Olegovich died in her kitchen.

For the next several weeks I canceled on Simon, fearing that I would be unable to hide my general discomfort from him. No prints recurred, but the discovery of a small turd by the mailboxes fueled my suspicions. Strange noises from indistinct locations brought about a series of complaints from the tenants. Mrs. Olegovich on floor two swore she heard “a scurrying” in her ceiling. And then something happened which unsettled me greatly. Mrs. Olegovich died in her kitchen.

A tenant death is, of course, nothing new to me, and as the woman was in her nineties I suppose it was a matter of sooner or later. Mrs. Olegovich had been one of those “theatre persons.” As a theatre person, she held loud auditions in her room at inconvenient hours, and her apartment was stuffed full of props. I do not mean decorations: her home was a warehouse for the things. Mrs. O was, she insisted, planning her return to the stage—a return which would be, she insisted, triumphant.

After breakfast one morning I received a call. It was Mrs. O’s brother, who said that Mrs. O had twice missed their nightly phone conversation. Ralph, a large tenant living directly underneath Mrs. O, had come to my office the night before to report a smell. I went down to #202, knocked, waited, knocked again, called out for Mrs. Olegovich, knocked a final time, and turned my key in the lock.

I have since realized that the telling of this next portion in chronological order hazards reproducing in my listeners what I felt in those moments. This I simply cannot risk. No one should need to experience what I went through that day. And it is true that the first time I relayed this story, my listener cried out, and so suddenly that I, too, made a noise, which further scared my listener, and she and I went back and forth that way for some time. Thus I have attempted to reverse the order of what I am about to say. So. I have said Mrs. Olegovich died in her kitchen. Well, I learned this crucial fact not upon opening the door, but three hours later, when her brother called me for the second time. This brother Olegovich had been trying desperately to reach me; when I picked up, he howled.

“What is this?” I asked.

“You,” he whispered, “have you gone in? Have you listened to your messages?”

“It is already done, Mr. Olegovich.”

“You must understand,” said the brother, “she was not trying to hide them, they were temp—” but I hung up the phone.

The “them” I will identify in time; but suffice it to say that at this point everything was already over. Mrs. Olegovich, bright at 93, had succumbed to her kitchen a full five days earlier. Her brother’s initial concerned call, that morning, had been a sham: he had already come by days ago, phoned an ambulance, and removed the body. So when he called me again, later in the afternoon, desperate, it was to ascertain whether I had already entered, because of what he had forgotten to remove from his sister’s apartment.

None of this I knew, of course, going in. Mrs. Olegovich’s kitchen was empty, as was her living room, hallway, and bathroom. Her blinds were drawn, and the rooms were stuffed with strange antique props, tribal masks, fake weapons, and a quiet gathering of mannequins, many of them amputees, some upright sitting or standing, others tipped onto the floor. On the kitchen counter she had fitted a mannequin with the wrong limbs, so that its arms were its legs and vice versa. It sat on the edge of the counter, with a basketball for a head. In the bathtub lay a mannequin wearing a shower cap.

I was on my way to the bedroom when it dawned on me that what I had just seen was possibly an attempt at a representation, quite likely an insulting one—I mean the kitchen mannequin, not the one in the tub. Its basketball-head, secured who knew how, canted forward, suggesting bad posture. I could feel the thing’s stiffness in my own joints. But I had no time to think about this further, for beyond the bedroom door came a soft rustling sound. I hesitated, turned the knob, pushed open the door, and was met with a ghastly sight: her bed in full living motion, the bedding a-rustle, a strange sound, almost a ticking, coming from beneath it, as something seemed to grope against its underside.

I do not deny that my first impulse, even before the fright, was to assist in removing the blanket—to presume the shape beneath it needed my help. For, in that moment, it was as though the shape beneath the bedding had assumed the outline of a groping Mrs. Olegovich. But then this shape dispersed. Grabbing a corner of the bedcover, I pulled—and gasped—

The sheer number of them astounded me: I later learned it was thirty.

Mrs. Olegovich’s apartment was home to a colony of rabbits.

They were grey, with white feet—all of them—and half of them were knocked over with the removal of the blanket. They lay in astonished disarray, still as toys, for a single second, and then they were in motion again. This was what Mr. Olegovich would confess to me later. This, and that they were hares, not rabbits—so the word was not quite colony but “drove” or “husk.” Lepus timidis—the mountain hare. It seemed as comfortable in Mrs. O’s bed as on any mountain. At least four of them were screwing anytime I looked.

I hesitated, turned the knob, pushed open the door, and was met with a ghastly sight: her bed in full living motion, the bedding a-rustle, a strange sound, almost a ticking, coming from beneath it, as something seemed to grope against its underside.

Something about the sight of them all—so many hares, so unexpected and out of place—troubled me greatly, in an unfamiliar way.

It was probably an hour later that I arrived at the Bernsteins’ door, to return one of Simon’s photography books, which he had left by my doorway but which I had not had time to read. Balloons, anchored to the doorknob, drifted in the air by the peephole. I had spent an hour sitting very quietly in my own bedroom, thinking. I had peeled a banana but discovered I could not eat. I had looked with emotions I could not identify at my own long-fingered hands. I felt strange, set adrift in nameless sensations.

Simon answered the door: “Oh, come on in! We are celebrating a birthday”—this I barely registered. I looked around. There were between twelve and twenty-seven Bernsteins present. Bunting hung from the ceiling, balloons massed around the picture window.

Between twelve and twenty-seven Bernsteins all stopped to regard me, ill-fitting festive hats tucked between their tiny ears.

“Everyone must leave,” I said evenly.

“—your pardon?” I heard. And, “—’s birthday.”

“It is,” I said, pausing, “look. Bylaws state that you cannot have more than twenty people in one of these rooms. I can support parties of this size in the atrium, on the roof, or in the spare storage rooms in the basement. In your lease agreement …” I swallowed. “I am sorry,” I said. “I do not want to interrupt. You all … please understand, I have had a very traumatic day.”

It was then that Trudy appeared at my arm, to lead me to a free folding chair. I was sat down in the throng of silent Bernsteins. A hand offered me cake on a small plate, and I accepted. Simon approached.

“They’ll be just a few minutes,” he said to me. “I’m very sorry. We didn’t realize—”

“It’s fine, my boy.”

He began to tell me about some street photography he planned on seeing, in a gallery that had opened up only a few blocks away. The Bernsteins were shuffling around, but no one had shown a hint of moving.

Then the baby, a blue folding star, wandered out of the crowd and toppled over. “There is the birthday girl herself,” said Simon. I turned to look.

The birthday girl was pulling herself to her feet, unsteadily. I looked at her. The party, the room, everything evaporated. Madra’s face, neck, and entire head were covered in thick, sand-colored hair. Her nose was a dark button. I recoiled, suddenly, for the second time in an hour. I glanced up at the Bernsteins. None of them were taller than five feet.

In a cosmic silence, Alice swept into view with a dish, which she placed near the coffee table. Madra’s face disappeared into it.

I stood up so quickly my cake toppled onto the carpet.

And I cast them out. First the herd of partygoers, who went in silence, and then Trudy, who growled, and the children. Bob and Alice pleaded with me while little Madra crawled around, seeking pieces of popcorn on the carpet. I confess I was confused by their reasoning. Had they not been told, explicitly by me and in bold in their lease agreements? They had been desperate, they answered, and had not even thought to look at the fine print—did not, for that matter, even understand what was the problem. And Madra, making noise this whole time, made me impatient. Alice apologized. She seemed to think the problem was the number of Bernsteins at the party, so I interrupted her, and got to the point by asking that she please remove her pet from the floor. But this request had the effect of enraging her, which in turn confused me, and Alice reacted fiercely, calling me a tyrant and bird-brain. I countered that the thought of disguising one’s pet as one’s infant daughter, which she had clearly done, was unconscionable; then I was slapped.

In the silence that followed the Bernsteins regarded me with bewilderment. Perhaps they thought I would react to being struck. But I did nothing, for I could not get the image of mountain hares out of my head. The sheer number of them was proof of something, but I did not know what. I looked at the Bernsteins and saw their twitching noses. I looked at Madra and saw her kicking legs. But it was the eyes, more than anything, that I saw before me now, staring out of Bernstein skulls. They were the eyes of prey. Before I could say anything more Alice had scooped up Madra, who began to cry, and took her away. I scratched my head. Bob wept into his broad furry hands.

But it was the eyes, more than anything, that I saw before me now, staring out of Bernstein skulls. They were the eyes of prey.

There are tenants who believe the rentier is its own species, or at least takes itself to be—that the rentier’s natural attributes lend themselves to his profession. They mean this critically, of course: their aim is to suggest that I am stealing from them (which is nonsense!) and that I steal not because I have fallen into the position of rentier but because, as I am one, I am bad through and through. To this I say, If the rentier is his own species, then what is a tenant? What a tragedy that would be, I say, to have been cursed by nature so, to be naturally dependent. To be clear, I have never actually spoken these words to a tenant. And no one in the Bernstein family said anything like the above to me. Bob was placid, and calmly accepted my consequences. None of them fought my decision after the fact. My strange fugue-state lasted until the next day, by which point they were gone, had left barely a trace. I expected, maybe even hoped, to be disputed, to hear from them again. But in truth it took me weeks to find a mailing address to which I could refund the remainder of the month’s rent, and this address belonged to a very distant relative of the Bernsteins, which made me somewhat doubtful they would receive the cheque at all.

I expected, maybe even hoped, to be disputed, to hear from them again.

I now believe I probably would not have held so closely to my decision to evict the Bernsteins if I had not been through that mess, earlier, with the hares.

Which is hardly a defense of my conduct. As you have witnessed, I was not fully myself that day. So even calling it a decision, as opposed to a reaction, a twitch of fingers, is questionable. I have evicted plenty of folks in my career, but never before had I evicted them so impetuously. And only in this instance did I feel, after I had done it, that by getting rid of the Bernsteins I was potentially putting that family in danger. And yet I did it: and knowing, at least shortly afterward, that they were innocent of most of what had put me in that state. To react so severely—but I suppose I was angry, and afraid, and in shock. And I ought to consider all this in the broader picture, which would by necessity include not just my own life in the years since, but perhaps a general survey of the times in which we live, and their unfriendliness. I know of many rentiers who have cast with less guilt better folks than the Bernsteins onto the pavement.

Which is hardly where I wish to end. But in all, I am consoled by the following. You will recall from my dream that the Bernsteins are tied inexorably, in my head, to the thought of my own inevitable decline. But consider the case more fully. It is one thing to overreact. It is another entirely to overreact as severely as I did, and in such a mindless state, while remaining fully within the bounds of a few well-laid out laws. Barely conscious, I yet abided them. It is a testament to their firmness, I think. And these laws are, to be sure, designed for the safety of all my tenants, and contribute to the maintenance of a nice, well-respected building, and have not in all my years here needed adjustment.


M. W. Johnston grew up in Nova Scotia, and currently lives in Toronto. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Antigonish Review and Vallum.

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