by Barbara Eliasson
Nellie and Edgar Nicholson didn’t know it at the time, but their lives changed when their neighbor, Miss Mary Ryan, tripped on her hall rug and broke her hip. Miss Ryan had lived in the apartment above the Nicholsons for thirty-five years; for the last twenty, after her mother died, she lived alone. She listened to classical music, played her television softly, gave no parties, and spent the holidays with her niece. Then she fell and within two months had moved out of her apartment and into a nursing home near her niece.
Only after Miss Ryan’s niece had cleaned out the apartment and the workmen had come to prepare it for new tenants, did the Nicholsons realize that Miss Ryan’s fall had consequences for themselves: who would move into the apartment above them? As they listened to the floor scrapers, they speculated.
“What if they’re very noisy?” Nellie said. “We’ve been spoiled by Miss Ryan.”
“I know,” her husband agreed. “But the apartment is much too small for a big family. And how much noise can one or two people make?”
“You’re probably right, dear,” Nellie said, soothed by her husband’s words. Although younger than Edgar, she was the more fearful. Seventy-six years old and slightly bent, she was small and fine-boned; with her soft wrinkled skin and thin flyaway white hair, she resembled an elderly china doll. Unlike his wife, Edgar was tall and straight, his seamed face topped by thick gray hair. Eighty-four years old, he was still an optimist. Nellie, he thought now, looking at her anxious face, was a worrier.
Nellie, though, turned out to be right. From the day the new tenants moved in, the Nicholsons’ peace was gone.
Neither Nellie nor Edgar saw the tenants move in; they heard them. Since they were both early risers, the thuds and scraping sounds didn’t awaken them; they were munching toast and sipping tea when the noises began. After one particularly heavy overhead thud that made the ceiling and walls shake, Nellie jumped. Lemony tea spilled into her lap.
“What on earth could that have been?” she asked as she sponged the tea stain from her pink floral housedress.
“They’re evidently moving in today,” Edgar said.
“Yes, but even if you’re moving, you don’t drop furniture, do you?” Nellie said. She looked sadly at the stain.
It wasn’t coming out, and this was her favorite housedress.
“Maybe they’ve hired careless movers,” Edgar said. “While they’re here, why don’t we go out for the day?”
“We can go to the library,” Edgar answered. “It opens at ten. We can relax and read magazines and today’s newspapers. And then,” he added, “we can splurge and go out to lunch.”
“What a lovely idea!” Nellie said happily. “We can go to that coffee shop we pass when we get the groceries.”
Nellie gave up on drinking her tea.
The walls were still vibrating when Edgar and Nellie returned to their apartment in mid-afternoon. They had treated themselves to tuna fish sandwiches and heavily sugared tea at the Java, picked up milk, orange juice and brown bread at the supermarket and walked back to their apartment building, tired but refreshed by their outing.
Looking forward to their afternoon naps, they let themselves into their lobby and took the elevator to the fourth floor. The moment they got off the elevator, they looked at each other. No naps. Music was flooding down from the fifth floor. When they unlocked the door to their apartment and went inside, they were assaulted by the sound.
Nellie put her hands to her ears.
“What can we do?” she said in a tiny voice.
“They’re just moving in, dear,” Edgar said. “It probably won’t be like this after today.”
But it was. Day after day, night after night, the Nicholsons’ little apartment rocked with sound. Nothing helped. Edgar spoke to the new tenants, a blonde sharp-featured woman in her twenties and a short, chunky thirtyish man with the thick neck and muscular arms of the weight lifter. Edgar, sure that the tenants– their name was Waller–were unaware of the unhappiness they were causing, went upstairs one evening and rang the Wallers’ doorbell. When the door opened, Edgar introduced himself to Waller and asked him to turn the stereo down. “Of course I’m not asking you to turn it off,” he said, “just down.”
“What for?” Waller asked, crossing his thick arms across his thick chest.
Surprised by Waller’s hostility, Edgar paused a moment before replying. “It’s loud,” he said, “so loud that we can’t listen to the radio or watch TV. In fact, we often have to leave the house.” Looking at the closed face before him, Edgar wondered how he could explain to this young man the shattering effect of a too-loud stereo upon people more than a half century older.
If only he could understand!
Waller, though, was bored. “You’ll have to live with it, Grandpa.” He started to close the door and then added,
“Maybe you should buy a house.”
Edgar spoke to the superintendent, Andy, a lean man with a receding chin and a drooping gray mustache. “I don’t interfere with arguments between tenants, Mr. Nicholson,” he said. “Talk to the landlord.”
He talked to the landlord. “I haven’t gotten complaints from any other tenants, Mr. Nicholson,” Mr. Fetter said.
“You’re the only one having a problem with the Wallers.”
He talked to other tenants. “I can’t believe,” he said to Nellie, “that no one else is bothered by this.”
But the Wallers were on the top floor, so there were no neighbors above them and their apartment was next to the elevator, so that only one apartment, on the other side of the Wallers’, might be affected. In that apartment, though, was only one old lady, even older than the Nicholsons, her senses, including hearing, slowly leaching away. It was rumored that she would be in a nursing home by spring.
What could he do?
One day, after coming home from the library–the Nicholsons now went there every day it was open–to sounds more crashing than usual, Nellie began to cry. Edgar wrapped his skinny arms around his wife and then sat her down at the kitchen table. He pulled out the file holding all their financial records: bills, rent statements, Social Security information and their single savings account passbook. Together they went over and over their budget, trying to see whether they could afford to move. They couldn’t; they were trapped.
In mid-December the first of the winter snowstorms hit the city, trapping the elderly, including the Nicholsons, in their homes. Homeowners and superintendents shoveled the snow; sleety rain fell in freezing gusts; and with temperatures in the low 20s, ice sheets formed over streets and sidewalks. The Nicholsons couldn’t leave their apartment; the trap had truly sprung.
By the end of the year Nellie looked more fragile than ever, her still-pretty blue eyes haunted, her tiny mouth folded down tensely. And while the old year faded away, in the apartment above the Nicholsons, the Wallers celebrated the coming of the New Year. As the New Year’s Eve party heated up, the old couple sat glumly in the living room, watching the bird prints on the walls shaking in their frames.
It was time for the countdown to midnight; they had always watched the lead-up to the ball drop in Times Square together, but this year…Edgar glanced at his withdrawn wife; Nellie wasn’t even looking at the screen. He picked up the remote control and clicked the TV on. “If only,” he thought, as the camera panned out over the crowd gathered in the Square, “If only they could feel what we’re feeling right now.”
In the lower right hand corner of the screen the time–11:59:52–appeared. The crowd began to chant: Eight–seven–six–five–four–three–two–one–Happy New Year!
Edgar got up stiffly from his chair, walked over to Nellie and kissed her gently on her cheek. He couldn’t say the words, “Happy New Year.” How could the coming year be any different from the last two months?
“I’ll fix us some tea,” he said.
As he went out to the hall on the way to the kitchen, the front door rattled from the force of heavy blows. Edgar could hear a slurred voice yelling, “Open this door, you old buzzard. I know you’re in there.”
Edgar thought he recognized that voice. Curious, he walked to the door and looked through the peephole. A red-faced, slightly drunk Waller was punching the door, alternately yelling and muttering.”Get that fucking stereo turned down,” he roared, “or you’ll be one very sorry old man.”
Edgar stood behind the locked and chained door and said, “What is it you want, Mr. Waller?”
“I want you to turn that stereo down NOW,” Waller cried. “We have guests, and they want to dance. They can’t hear the music, and the goddamned floor is shaking so much they can’t even move across the fucking floor. So get it down before I knock this door off its fucking hinges and turn it down myself.”
“Mr. Waller,” Edgar said, “we don’t have a stereo. If,” he added, “you weren’t yelling so much, I’d let you in and you could see for yourself.”
The blows began again. They even penetrated Nellie’s daze, and she came out to the hall.
“What’s happening, Edgar?”
They were sitting down to their tea when the doorbell rang.
Nellie went pale.
“Drink your tea,” Edgar ordered. “It can’t be Waller; the doorbell is too civilized for him.”
Still, he was cautious. He called out, “Who is it?” then looked through the peephole. It was Andy. He was alone.
Edgar opened the door.
“What’s the matter, Andy? I thought you’d be off tonight.”
Andy smiled slightly. “Yes, well,” he stammered, “I just thought I’d ask you to cooperate. Mr. Waller in 5B complained about you.”
“I thought you never interfered in problems between tenants, Andy,” Edgar said. He looked inquiringly at the super.
Andy reddened. “Well…er…the fact is, the only way I could get him back to his apartment was to promise I’d speak to you.”
“I see.” The two men were silent. Then Edgar said, “As you can hear, there’s nothing on except the TV in the living room.”
“Did you just turn your stereo off now?” Andy asked.
Edgar’s body went rigid. “As I told Mr. Waller, we don’t have a stereo. Would you like to look around?”
“No, no. But would you mind if I called Mr. Waller from here?
“Can’t you just go upstairs and talk to him?”
Andy looked uncomfortable but didn’t answer. Then Edgar realized, in astonishment, what the superintendent wanted to do. He wanted to check whether the noise continued upstairs while he could verify that the Nicholsons’ apartment was quiet.
Edgar led Andy into the kitchen and waved the super to the phone.
When the super returned to the hall, Edgar said, “Well?”
“It’s still going up there.”
“I think, then, you know we have nothing to do with his problem.”
Andy nodded unhappily. “Thanks, Mr. Nicholson.”
As Edgar opened the door for the super, he said, “My problem, Andy, is that I’m too old to be a threat to anyone.” He closed the door after the other man.
For the Nicholsons, one by one, their daily routines and small joys disappeared. No morning walks. No afternoon naps. No home-cooked meals. Nellie, still vague and apathetic after two months of anxiety, hadn’t cooked since the Wallers’ arrival. Edgar clung to one remaining pleasure: watching the 5 o’clock news together. That, too, was ruined. Even with the volume turned to deafening levels, the reporters’ voices were soon drowned out by the music pouring from above. It didn’t matter. Nellie no longer watched.
Concerned about the change in his wife, Edgar was only fleetingly disturbed by Waller’s regular door-pounding and bell-ringing. Almost every evening he was at the Nicholsons’ apartment, muttering, cursing, and kicking at the door. Finally, in response to Andy’s pleading, Edgar allowed Waller, accompanied by the super, to walk through the Nicholsons’ apartment.
Waller stamped through the rooms, swiveling his brutish head from side to side, muttering, “I know the old geezer’s behind this somehow.” Andy followed, making soothing sounds. After Waller left, Andy lingered for a moment.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Nicholson. I’ve never heard the stereo he’s talking about.” He lowered his voice, as though Waller were still nearby. “It’s my opinion that he’s going…” He tapped two fingers quickly to his forehead. “Know what I mean?”
Edgar nodded, uninterested. He didn’t care about Waller’s sanity; what he was worried about was Nellie’s. He
locked the door behind the superintendent and walked into the living room. Nellie was sitting in exactly the same position she was in when the doorbell had rung. Slumped in a chair, her beautiful eyes filmy and unfocused, she stared dully at the moving figures on the TV screen. The 5 o’clock news.
The 5 o’clock news. Waller’s door-thumpings usually occurred right after Edgar turned on the 5 o’clock news.
Could it be? Edgar sat down suddenly, legs weakened, breath transformed into harsh gasps by the outrageousness of his thought. He remembered his New Year’s Eve wish; he remembered pressing the remote button in despair…
He woke himself up at 3 a.m. Even years ago, when he was due at work every morning at 8, he hadn’t needed an alarm clock. He didn’t need one now. He pushed the blankets and quilted comforter back and slid out of bed quietly so that he wouldn’t disturb his sleeping wife. He shoved his feet into brown felt slippers and went into the living room. Through the front window moonlight poured in, making strange shadows in the room. He turned on the lamp next to his favorite chair and reached for the remote control. He sat down and pressed his thumb on the red power button. The screen filled with the images of an old movie. He leaned back in the chair, waiting for the test results.
They came within minutes. He heard the scrabble of rushing feet on the stairs at the end of the corridor, then down the hall to the Nicholsons’ apartment. Moments later, he heard the familiar pounding; Edgar put down the remote and walked calmly to the door. He pushed the peephole cover aside and looked out at the florid, swollen face of his upstairs neighbor.
“It’s three fucking a.m.!” Waller yelled, punching the door. Edgar stood still for a moment, listening; then, without speaking, he let the cover drop, turned away, and walked back to the living room. He could still hear the sounds of fists pounding against the door…over… and over…and over….
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