In the last “Housing Story,” my annoying upstairs neighbor, Johnny, fell off the roof of my tenement building while renovating his fire-damaged apartment, and I at long last got a legal lease for mine. After this, I thought I’d used up all the good fortune I had coming. But Johnny survived his fall, and the renovation of Johnny’s apartment, which is directly over mine, eventually resumed. At night. Happily I’d just begun meditation and yoga classes to bring a spiritual component to the splitting, suicidal rage my neighbors had so easily put me in.
So, in the name of this spiritualism, I decide to just ignore the construction noise for a while and see how things shake out: Maybe the renovation won’t take long, I think, with hand-wringing, enlightened optimism. And anyway, I have experience with these workmen from when Johnny renovated last time and managed to burst through my ceiling. I know there’s little to be gained from speaking with them about the noise, the late hour, or their doltish behavior. They don’t speak English, or do construction, well. Certainly, they don’t want to understand what I have to say. They have their construction workers’s universal weary loathing of all people who live near their work site; I am the irritant to them they are to me.
The renovation goes on for a few days and I warm up to the thudding noises, placing them beside the ones in my skull to make little percussive compositions. I enjoy the times when, after a prolonged silence, I’m sitting there with peace draped over me and there’s a sudden BANG! Right over my head. These moments really test my meditative skills.
One night, I listen to a power saw screaming in agony as it’s thrust violently through some wood, and imagine the acrid smoke pouring from the motor. I lunge toward spiritual oneness: I am a screaming power saw, I am a screaming power saw, I drone, as acrid smoke plumes from my head.
Suddenly there’s a knock at my door. Very unusual. I lift myself out of the lotus position and re-attach my legs. I stub out my cigarette, finish my drink, apply a nicotine patch, turn the TV volume down, minimize the nude, blonde woman on the computer, remind myself to stand up straight and breathe diaphragmatically, and shuffle to the door, bathrobe billowing around me.
At the door is a clothed, blonde woman whom I’ve never seen before. I stare at her expectantly.
“Hello,” she says. “I am Catherine.” She’s smiling greatly. She has a Ukrainian accent that doesn’t make her English difficult to understand. I suspect who she is right away, a talent I ascribe to my new oneness and the fact that her dusty clothes clearly show that she’s been doing construction work; it’s Johnny’s mother, who used to live above me before she gave him the apartment. I never once saw her despite living below her for years, and she was always quiet, the perfect neighbor.
“Hello,” I reply. “You live upstairs right? You’re Johnny’s mother?”
“Yes,” she says, still smiling. Her smile is attractive and cheerful, and contrasts oddly with the coarse, angular severity of her body; she’s an axe on Christmas morning. “Do you have some tape?” she asks warmly. I reflect that sounding warm with a Ukie (pronounced ‘YOU-key’) accent is probably not that easy.
“Tape?!” I exclaim, a bit too vehemently, I think immediately, like she’d asked me for handcuffs. But, it’s just that I’m surprised to be asked for something. I always expect people at the door to have gifts for me, not tiny needs to be filled.
“Yes,” she goes, “I am working upstairs and the men say I need tape.”
“What kind of tape?”
“For the walls.” She rubs her hand in the air as if against a wall between us. The motion makes her look girlish and vulnerable.
“You mean drywall tape?” I ask.
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Any tape.” She gives me a look of sexy uncertainty, combined with the confidence of an expert horseman beholding their animal.
“Well,” I say like a knowing stallion, “if you’re doing the walls, you need drywall tape. You can’t just use any tape on drywall. I don’t think I have any, though, let me look.”
Another opportunity to be a good neighbor, I think, rubbing my hands together. This turns out to be a rare, genuine sentiment in this case, because I always loved this woman for being so quiet. I’m someone who appreciates all the advantages of loving people I don’t know.
“No,” I say to her apologetically, after a brief search. “I don’t have any drywall tape. Ask Dave. He might have some.”
“No, he does not have any. I ask already.” She has stopped smiling now, I notice nervously. And she isn’t leaving. The nicotine patch is slipping down my skin like a slug. This fits a pattern; I put on a patch, it itches for a while, and then drops off the moment I encounter a human being.
“Oh,” I say. “Well, I’m sorry. Don’t use normal tape, thought. It won’t work on drywall.”
“Okay,” she says, already dismissing my advice. I feel that I’ve failed her. Then I irritatedly think that she’ll just take some video tape, stick it on the walls with plaster, and forget about it. These are not people who allow themselves to be tyrannized by the demands of quality. To free myself from this irritating thought, I mentally recite my new mantra: What the fuck do I care what happens, ever? What the fuck do I care what happens, ever?
“Is the noise okay? Not too loud?” Catherine asks suddenly, after our moment of warm, companionable silence. Her smile reemerges, the flash of a fish rising to the surface. Her timing is quite good, I note, because she says this just at that pinpoint moment when I start panicking because I haven’t anything to say. “I don’t want to bother you,” she continues, “but I want to fix apartment, and we can’t work during day.” Enlightenment rushes through me. This is all I ever wanted! I shout from my inner mountaintop. Someone to behave with uncommon courtesy! I boot the Buddha over the precipice. I grin at Catherine and restrain the urge to grasp her hand and bound into neighborly ribaldry.
“The noise is okay,” I call from my swoon. “Just maybe not so late, eh?”
“What time is okay?” she asks.
“Say ten or so?”
“Ten? Okay, is fine. Thank you. Good night.”
“She turns and goes up the stairs as I shut the door. I flip the lock, and get that little pang I always do, feeling whomever is out there will be offended that I’ve locked them out. I realize after a couple of minutes that this woman has handled me perfectly. (it was a couple of days, in fact. Damn this spiritual innocence.) She never really stops working at ten o’clock. But I don’t much mind. She said she didn’t want to bother me. That’s nirvana blowing a kiss to those staked down in the earth.
Then, one night, I hear the usual banging above me, and it’s too much. I think about going out to escape, but its Friday night in the East Village: Mmm, to which of the incessant parade of indistinguishable, vulgar bistros packed with nobodies should I go tonight? Or maybe I’ll go to the bar where the bartenders dress up like monks, a sartorial act which is by itself more self-flagellation than I could stand. I’ll get a little spiritual touch-up and maybe spit bits of bitter attitude on some shiny blonde wearing a backpack just big enough for a fetus—my usual seduction moves that have the finesse of earth-movers. Did the earth move for you, baby?
I decide to go out for sushi and forget about fun. I need something to read for the sushi bar, and reach for The Odessa File before considering my new life; no, better the Chuang Tzu, I sigh.
When I return, the noise is still going on upstairs. But there’s a subtle difference in this kind of pounding. I listen closer. Something isn’t right. I go to the airshaft to hear better, and I realize they’re not doing construction, they’re dancing. They’re having a party! And when Ukies party, it has all the glad energy of construction, because of this dancing which demands that they smack their hard feet against the floor and walls. In this case they’re dancing to the keening of what sounds like a cranked-up clock radio destroying itself with polkas. My soul now warmed from eighty cups of sake, I instantly recognize this as an opportunity for fun and company, and I invite myself to the party, sure that Catherine will be enthused. I knock on her door. I can hear them right on the other side of it, dancing and crashing about. In transport, they make little barking noises. It takes about a full minute of my excited knocking before the music stops sharply, and then there’s an interval of disgruntled murmuring. But, not one to be deterred by being totally unwanted, I knock again, squashing the party goers’ palpable hope that I will suddenly vanish. Catherine answers the door and stares wordlessly at me. She is not smiling.
“Hello!” I say, my voice a happy slur.
“Hello,” she returns tersely. What in the fuck am I doing here? I hammer inwardly, and then go quickly to my mantra: What the fuck do I care what happens, ever?
“Uh,” I say, and go mute. Never hope for spontaneity, you fool, I think. Plan it! What the fuck do I care… I wave my hand weirdly at the inside of her apartment as Catherine stares at me with her frosty brow furrowed. I seemed to be hoping that my gesture will be interpreted as please invite me to your party, or, perhaps; please, please, please let me in, I beg you. An abyss of silence gapes.
Then Catherine’s brow clears suddenly. “Oh, you would like to see apartment!” she says relieved. “Come in!”
“Yeah!” I say. My pulse resumes, a spooked animal returning to its placid grazing. I belatedly realize Catherine thought I came to hassle her over the noise, and that’s why she was initially chilly. If I had simply said right off that I was not there about the noise, there wouldn’t have been that excruciating period of total timelessness, and our current warm camaraderie would have been arrived at much sooner. Every day is a chance to learn something new when it’s too late, I note, before slumping into exhaustion from this protracted bout of thinking.
Inside, Catherine leads me directly away from the party area. I can see three workmen, now deprived of their dancing, trotting about like colts. While she has me sufficiently severed from the festivities, Catherine describes to me the work they’ve done on the apartment. I listen to none of this, because I am utterly uninterested. I want a drink. But, I nod along to her monologue, which, it must be said, she has little interest in giving. She just doesn’t know what else to do with me, and wears an expression like she’s been handed something very familiar but unpleasant, like her child’s soiled diaper.
“Can I have a drink?” I interject finally, guessing at what a suitable amount of time to be bored might be.
“Oh, you would like a drink?!” she replies with a heartbreaking degree of enthusiasm and surprise. She’s pleased that I’m not interested in the apartment. I am clearly riding a hot streak.
“Yes, please!” I say, poking my tone of voice up a couple notches to try to match her cheeriness. I think I come pretty close, like about shotput distance. The apartment, identical in layout to mine, three rooms in a line. The smallest room is in the back. We’re standing alone in the front room, the largest. Catherine leads the way to the back room, where, in a display of defiant contrariness, they’ve chosen to hold the party, despite the front room being far more suitable. I resist the urge to fussily point out this foolish choice they’ve made: What the fuck do I care? What… But the back room is truly tiny. There’s a built-in closet from which dirty clothes bulge, taking up precious space. To one side hunches a festive pile of construction debris. In what little room remains, there are three men, and one other woman. The woman is squatting on a bucket with surprising grace. The men are standing around looking restive. They all have dusty, paint-splattered loafers on, and trousers made of fabric that melts when flame nears it. They wear tightly-cinched, narrow, leather belts that make these pants bunch weirdly at the waist, and thin, flannel work-shirts that are worn through at the elbow.
Catherine introduces me to everyone as her downstairs neighbor, and a nice man. I smile at everyone and wave. “Hi,” I say. In response, they lob a small barrage of unintelligibility on me. Their names shoot through my head without encountering resistance. This often happens to me, but these names are foreign, so my brain has no chance at all. I don’t even try. Catherine sets out a bucket for me, settles herself into the only actual chair in the room, and gestures at one of the men to give me a drink. I can see from the way Catherine and the woman are situated like that, before I arrived, they had been sitting, while the man danced before them on the puppet-stage-sized floor. I have walked up one flight of stairs, and been blown to the other side of the world.
“Have a sausage!” Catherine orders me, and gestures at a small platter of tormented kielbasa, pickles like pinkies, and other delicacies sitting on a piece of plywood. Before I can politely recoil, one of the men approaches and stands about six inches in front of me. I noticeably flinch at this proximity. He’s taller than I am, so I look up into two nostrils tightly packed with darkness. He has coarse salt-and-pepper hair cut in a helmet-like way, and a single eyebrow across his forehead like a barcode. His eyes are glaring, black, and alcohol feral. His breath is sickly-warm and vodka-sweet. A naked light bulb shines from the ceiling behind his head. The place is a freshly-painted, white womb. He opens his mouth and deposits onto my face; “Lacshlik glarlshlee sloshkschlo barschbla ninishlee, kalik!” everyone watches silently. He stares right into my eye, as I cock my head and smile weakly.
“Uh-huh,” I say and nod.
“Lacshlik glarlshlee sloshkschlo barschbla ninishlee, kalik!” he insists. I look around for help, and shrug my shoulders at him. He doesn’t seem to want to budge. He wants a response. I stupidly try to puzzle meaning out of that torrent of words. I wonder if I’m about to be buggered, forced to dance for them, or tied to a chair and pelted with incomprehensibilities, assuming there’s an interesting distinction between those things.
“Glaushkie blishna bashwettla, nasak!” Catherine finally says, with a warning tone. The man glares at me for a tension-draped moment, surlily turns away, and stalks into the kitchen. I continue smiling loopily around and forget this man. At this moment, I’m going on instinct, and booze, which leaves me with the social vision of a mole. A short man, who has now found his own bucket to sit on, pours a snifter glass half-full of Gordon’s vodka from a half-gallon bottle. He hands me the glass. He then reaches beside him and picks up a big, plastic bottle of Pepsi, and goes to pour it into my vodka.
“Hah!” I laugh, pulling the glass away. “None for me, thanks man!” I continue to smile at him, saying with it: Vodka and Pepsi is awfully vile, but hey, different strokes for different folks, eh, guy? And hey, how about this old melting pot, where I get to sip sake one minute, and swill vodka and Pepsi the next?!
His expression doesn’t reflect this attitude, though, I note. His is more of an incessant every-day’s-a-Monday, every-crowd’s-a-funeral look. He gestures with the Pepsi again. There is something hostile about the insistence. I shake my head, but say no more. I vaguely understand that these men may have understood English some, but don’t like to speak it, nor hear it. I have no interest in men, however, so I turn back to Catherine.
“So, how’s Johnny?” I ask her. “That was a long fall he took.” I do have an agenda other than excruciating fun. I want to know who is going to live here.
“He is fine,” she says. “He is a very strong boy, my son.”
“Yeah,” I concur, “he’s an animal. So, he’s not in the hospital anymore?”
“No, he is fine, now.” She gives a queenly, dismissive wave, as if it would take far more than a five-story plunge onto flagstone to kill one of her progeny. She is sitting back, cupping her glass and its repulsive, brown mixture in one hand, a cracker with meat in the other. Her hair is in an arrangement that is both up and down, formal and not. She is wearing a rimy, sleeveless, men’s undershirt and no bra, so her large breasts roam her chest at will. Her woman friend has long black hair, a meaty face, a big bosom with a little swollen belly beneath, and slab-like, exposed arms. She turns and gazes at me as the man sits silently on his bucket staring steadfastly forward. I can hear the other two men talking seriously in the next room.
“So this is your neighbor,” the other woman says to Catherine, and leers coyly into my eyes. “I hope he is single.”
“Yes, that would be nice,” Catherine replies, and looks at me questioningly. I shrug, genuinely. I never really know.
“Mmmm, he is very handsome,” the woman observes, and giggles. I smile in return as my head carousels.
“Yes.” Catherine says.
“And so young!” The woman also notes. The man is staring at me vigorously now. I smile happily back at him, just going with the flow.
“And he lives downstairs, too!” the woman exults. “That is very convenient!”
“Hah, hah, hah!” Catherine laughs. “Yes! We should stop by at his apartment sometime!”
“Sure,” I say agreeably, “we should do this every week!”
“Hah, hah, hah, yes!” The women laugh, as I blearily beam at them. We raise our glasses jovially. The man suddenly gets up and stomps off. I ignore this, being wholly absorbed in the fun. The women look unconcerned by the man’s departure, perhaps even somewhat gratified by it.
“So Johnny, is he working?” I ask Catherine.
“No, he cannot work now. His body, it is okay. But his head is not good. The bone, it come apart in many ways.” As she says this, she holds her hands around her own head and moves them around to indicate many separations.
“Oh, I see,” I say, gathering my pity like beads of quicksilver.
“He does not remember things, short-term, you see?”
“Ah-hah. That’s lucky. It’s good for staying in the moment. Where is he living?”
“He is at my house, but he will come here when I am done working. I am fix up for him, not for me. I can do nothing else. He is sometimes a stupid boy, but he is young. He is my son. He does his best.”
“Oh, yes,” I affirm. “I like him. I’m glad he’s okay. That was a long fall, and onto those stones too! Wham! Gruesome.”
“Yes. But he is a Christmas baby, so God saved him. There will be no more accidents for him.”
“Right,” I say, pleased with how easy my spiritualism has made it for me to agree with things with which I wholly disagree. The volume of the men’s conversation is escalating. In fact, they are shouting at one another. The women glance at them with stony disgust, and speak Ukie to one another for a while as I sit there.
“What do you do anyway?” I interject to Catherine, wanting to try out this new phrase I’ve acquired to replace my usual insolent glare. Catherine glares at me insolently.
“Why do you ask me what I do? I do not ask you what you do.”
“I-I’m just curious. Y-you can ask me what I do.”
“I do not care what you do.” Both women are now giving me looks like blows.
“Uh, me either,” I say soothingly. Back to Johnny, I think, then: What the fuck do I care.
“Well, when’s Johnny coming back?” I ask her. I light a Marlboro and drain my vodka.
“Very soon,” Catherine says easily. “I am almost finish. That is why we celebrate. But I want it to be very nice for him. He has had difficult time. I must do it, I cannot help it, I am his mother, he is my son. I look at him and pffish!” She accompanies this last sound with a quick, helpless hand gesture that indicates the sad inevitability of her love for him.
“Right,” I say, nodding.
“The volume of the men’s shouting suddenly escalates more for some reason. Catherine glances at them, looking irritated and bored.
“The mother is everything,” Catherine continues, “the man, he is nothing!” She raises her hand and makes one quick snap in the men’s direction to accompany her grimace. “But I, I am the mother, I carry him around for nine months like a hot ball right here inside!” she puts her hand on hr belly, clenches the flesh and shakes. Her breasts wiggle. She looks daggers at me, challenging me to refute her, as if I would ever disagree with her about anything. I flush like a hot ball.
“That is why the mother is everything!” she goes on. “Nine months! Men. Pah!” She drinks her vodka, as I nod in agreement.
The short, forlorn man has now come back into the room and retaken his seat. He is plainly an emissary. The other two men continue to shout at one another in the kitchen. The short man begins shouting directly into the dark-haired woman’s face. She looks right back at him with calm disdain. I flinch again: These people get so close to one another! Catherine turns to watch this new conversation, her face sour. At the man’s shouts, the black-haired woman laughs like several derisive schoolgirls. This infuriates him more, and he yells louder. The other two men enter the room and being shouting aimlessly and waving their arms. They create a crushing, ambient energy that makes me uneasy. I glance at Catherine. She rolls her eyes and shrugs at me. I give her a look of commiseration.
Now a realization at last makes it through my hard cheeriness and rolls my mantra into an inkblot: These men are not pleased that I am here. That’s why they keep shouting. They think I’m stealing their women. I feel stirrings of alarm and discouragement as fun bleeds from the room, and I finally see that I have put a blade through this party’s vitals.
“I think I ought to go,” I say to Catherine. “They seem pretty upset.”
“Yes,” she says, and nods to the door. “They are unhappy that you are here. It is too much for them. They are just men.”
She looks at me with resignation. “And they will never stop shouting, ever.”