by Margaret Mendel
A Voice To Remember was first published in the 2007 New York City SinC Anthology, Murder New York Style.
Arlene won’t be spending Christmas in our apartment building, as of this morning. And you wouldn’t exactly say she moved out. Our nemesis of so many years went feet first and in a body bag.
During the time I watched the medical examiner shove the gurney laden with Arlene’s body into his waiting vehicle, I didn’t hear a single neighbor say something nice about her. No one in the building seemed surprised that anything like this could have happened to her, either. She’d lived in our building for nearly a decade, and in that time she’d developed quite a reputation. She wasn’t unfriendly or hard to get to know–quite the contrary–everyone had gotten to know her all too well, and I don’t think anyone was sorry to be rid of her.
Our building in the Bronx, dinky by New York standards, is a narrow, four-story walk-up with two apartments on each floor. My apartment shared a wall with Arlene’s kitchen, and I heard everything that went on in there. I’ve lived in this apartment for over forty-five years. My husband, George, may he rest in peace, and I moved into the building when we were first married. We raised our son, George Jr., in this apartment, and we never had trouble with any of the other tenants until Arlene and her husband, Butch, moved next door.
Every evening, it never failed. As soon as Butch walked in the door, Arlene and he started bickering and fighting; some nights, their disagreements escalated to such a level that none of the tenants in the apartment house could keep their minds on the TV. If my windows were open, the two of them sounded as if they were in the same room with me. I’d slam the windowpane shut and I could still hear Arlene carrying on.
Arlene did the majority of the shouting and she not only screamed at Butch, she hollered at her children too. She worked late several nights a week and when she came home in the evening, she’d shout at her son and daughter the same way she yelled at their father. Poor kids, they never did anything right.
We complained to the super about the noise, but if he spoke to Arlene and Butch about it, they didn’t reform. Arlene called her husband every name in the book, and we’d have to listen to her ugly swearing. Some nights she’d even throw things at him. I telephoned 911 on them once, but that didn’t change anything, either.
On some evenings–and I suspect those were the nights when Arlene came home especially late from work–our apartment building would be as quiet as a church. That’s the way it used to be, before Arlene and Butch moved in. Back then in the evening we could relax, hear ourselves think and eat our dinner in peace. With them in the building we’d first be lulled into a false sense of calm, and then she’d come home and shatter the silence with her irrational ranting.
Butch never said much and I rarely heard him raise his voice to his wife. On the other hand, Arlene, a skinny, short woman with snakelike muscles that crawled up her bones, could make more noise than any woman I’d ever heard. She frightened me. I never spoke to her when I saw her on the street or in the hallway of our building; I wanted nothing to do with her. George had talked to Butch a couple of times and he said that the man seemed like an okay kind of guy, and for the life of him he couldn’t figure out why Butch stayed married to such a snarling woman.
After George passed away last year, Butch came by with a bakery cake and gave his condolences. He said the cake was from his family. Arlene never showed her face at my door, but you’d have thought that she’d have cut out the hollering during my mourning. No, and she just kept on spewing out her curses. Georgie, my son, said that I should call 911 on them every night. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.
At long last, this unpleasant repetitive family performance came to a climax two months ago, around Halloween, when Arlene sent her husband packing. The finale to the marriage didn’t surprise anyone. They’d been fighting for years, but the drama leading up to his moving out was pretty bad. She’d begun to scream and holler at Butch even more than usual, using profanity quite unlike the language used by the other ladies who lived in our building. I would have never said anything like this to George, no matter how angry I was at him.
The night I heard Arlene scream at Butch to get out was a beautiful evening, so I had my windows open. George and I used to sit by the window on nights like these, enjoying the cool autumn air before the winter set in. I loved those evenings George and I had spent together, but on this particular night I sat in the living room watching one of my favorite TV programs when I heard Butch pleading, “Please. Let me stay.”
Arlene shouted, “No!” I believe that at one point I heard him sobbing, too.
The next day I caught a glimpse of Butch leaving the house with a single suitcase. Later, I saw him come back for a few other items. One of our tenants, Marcie, had grown up in a housing project with Arlene. She said Arlene had been the leader of a wild band of girls back then and Marcie told stories about how our noisy neighbor beat up everyone.
I could see Arlene as an angry adolescent, slapping the head of a little boy, grabbing the neck of his coat and knocking him to the ground where her gang could pummel him even more. I could see her kicking and punching a bigger boy, too.
Marcie had attempted to rationalize Arlene’s behavior by telling us that Arlene’s father had been an alcoholic. “I know for a fact,” Marcie said. “He beat on his wife and Arlene and her sisters something fierce.
I didn’t care about Arlene’s troubled childhood, and after George passed away all I wanted was peace and quiet.
One night, after Butch moved out, I heard Arlene shout at her daughter, the oldest, who attended high school, “If you don’t like the way I run the house, go live with your father. Life would be better without having to clean up after you, anyway.” A week or so later, I realized I wasn’t seeing the daughter around anymore.
That left Arlene alone with the son, a whiny, very thin, nervous kid about ten years old. Like his father, this son never hollered back at Arlene. However, the boy had inherited his mother’s vocal ability and could project his voice out into the building as if he’d gotten hold of a megaphone. We heard his pathetic whining as his mother berated him and called him every name in the book simply because he hadn’t finished his schoolwork by the time she arrived home.
Not too long after that, while I folded my clean clothing in the laundry room, I happened to overhear the woman from 1W talking to the woman from 3R.
“My cousin’s a bum,” the woman who lived in 1W said, “a real good-for-nothing drifter who can’t hold down a job, but he’s a handsome devil and can always find some woman to support him. Well…” the neighbor continued, and now she spoke in a softer conspiratorial tone, casting quick looks in my direction. “He helped Arlene fix a flat tire one day and the next thing you know, Butch is kicked out into the street and my cousin has moved in.”
So that’s who the guy was. I’d seen Arlene hanging out with a big, handsome man in the last couple of months, but I hadn’t known he was related to someone in our building. All I really cared about was that, except for shouting at her son, the all-night fighting between Arlene and Butch had stopped.
However, the quiet hadn’t lasted very long.
As I eavesdropped on my neighbors’ conversation in the laundry room, the pieces all began to fall into place. One morning, some time after Butch had moved out of the house, I’d heard Arlene shouting, “You hurt me, used me and played with my emotions.”
Oh, my, and then did she fling some fancy profanity at whomever she’d been raking over the coals. I suspected now that I’d overheard the breakup of Arlene and this neighbor’s cousin. From what I could hear, the new man in Arlene’s life had turned out to be a bedroom hopper and he’d been pressing the sheets with another woman down the block.
By comparison, after the ruckus with this neighbor’s cousin who moved out, life in our apartment building became pretty quiet. Arlene continued to give it to her whinny son, but those dressing downs were nothing like the hollering she’d done at the men in her life.
Then this morning, long before the sun came up, a nasty sounding row broke out, and I was awakened out of a sound sleep. Something crashed against the wall. Arlene called out many of her choice curses and her voice echoed through the halls of the building as if someone had turned on a loudspeaker system. I got out of bed, wondering if we’d ever have peace as long as Arlene lived among us.
I put on my bathrobe and, just when I began to look for the super’s telephone number, the sound of gunfire cracked throughout the building. I heard a terrible scream and a chill scrapped down my back as if the devil himself had paid me a visit. I knew then that something horrible had happened to Arlene. I grabbed the phone and called 911.
Within minutes of the gunshot, police cars pulled up to our building, their sirens and flashing lights breaking the calm of the early morning hour. The one thing about a small building is that it certainly doesn’t take long for everyone to come out into the hallway. As the officers rushed up the stairs, the tenants had all crowded along the banisters, dumbly wondering what they would see.
“Terrible, terrible, terrible,” that’s all I can say. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
When the officers arrived at my floor, I pointed them to Arlene’s apartment. They knocked on the door, called to anyone who might be in there and pulled out their guns. Then they opened the door and from where I stood in the hallway, I could see the silhouette of a man sitting on the recliner and a Christmas tree, its light glowing in the background. The man switched on the floor lamp beside the chair and turned his head to the entranceway. It was Butch. From the blank look on his face, I half expected him to say, “Yes? Can I help you?”
But, then, he looked down at his wife sprawled on the floor at his feet, her white satin nightgown soaked in the dull crimson of her own blood and he began to cry. The officers stepped into the apartment and closed the door behind them.
So, now Arlene is gone. She never did like her apartment anyway. She complained that she didn’t have enough light for her plants, that the rooms were too small and the kitchen was far too old fashioned for her taste. She’d given her neighbors plenty to talk about, and now she no longer remained among us.
Years ago, George and I had talked about telling Arlene that everyone in the building could hear what she said during her arguments. I wondered if knowing we all were listening would have mattered to her. Would she have changed her ways? I doubt it; I’m sure she already knew. She just didn’t care.
The neighbors from upstairs and from the downstairs apartments had all gathered on my landing. “What happen? What happened? What happened?” they all chattered on. I said nothing. The image of Arlene on the floor crowded my senses. I went into my place and closed the door, then opened the window. The sun was coming up. A garbage truck stood outside our building, the gears of the lifting device made a grinding noise as the men threw large bags of trash into the gapping, waiting compacting unit.
Screeching brakes from a nearby collision sounded up the street. Teenagers hollered back and forth to each other as they made their way to the high school located several blocks away. These were the noises of morning on my block, but today certain sounds wouldn’t be heard. I wouldn’t hear Arlene screaming at her son that he’d be late for school if he didn’t get his ass in motion. Arlene wouldn’t bang her son’s textbooks down on the table and shout that he’d better get his schoolwork done before she arrived home from work tonight.
I stood at my open window for a while. Several tenants gathered outside our building, one still in her bathrobe and slippers. The sun slowly brought more light into the day, as I observed the police taking Butch away, his hands cuffed together behind his back. His removal seemed such a frighteningly silent act.
I fixed myself a cup of tea, turned on the lights to my Christmas tree and sat for the longest time in the living room watching a shadow creep across the floor.
I heard people coming and going next door and voices calling back and forth. I suspected detectives conducting their investigation made the sounds. I remembered one evening Arlene had made such a racket that I knocked on the wall.
Someone had banged back abruptly, making far more noise than the paltry rapping of my knuckles. I never tried that tactic again.
My cup of tea cooled. The sounds outside my window jumbled together and no longer made sense. I heard someone slam shut the door to Arlene’s apartment, but inside my living room there was nothing to hear. I was alone. Oh, God, I was all too alone.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section. You can check out all of the Christmas short stories that have gone up this month in our Terrific Tales section. There will be more mystery and pet Christmas stories.