Someone has died. I am not in a position to say who, and what I mean by this is, I am not so sure. Oh, there are many times I cannot tell if I, yes I, am alive anymore, so whether anyone else is or not gets by me, mostly. Especially in a circumstance where I did not privately know the deceased, had never, in fact, met the deceased, would never have known the deceased lived in the first place.
And that is the difficulty in which I now find myself. I do not know, did not know the dead man in question, and yet his bereaved sits in my kitchen, weeping, praying, raging. No sooner is the woman dry than she cries again, or begins appealing "eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord..." before finally cussing at the air. "Why? Why? Why?"
So is a life.
It is not just the dead man I am, or was, unacquainted with. I have never met this sad, desperate woman at my kitchen table before now, and, to be sincere with you, I already hate her. In fact, I almost ask her to leave, for I have enough trouble as it is.
Are these awful things to think about someone in such misery and distress? About someone to whom the terrible has happened? It's possible. And yet I cannot help but imagine her in a number of ridiculous ways—for instance, I keep seeing the woman flinging herself into the hole at her late one's interring, not because she wishes to give him one last embrace but by vice of her wild, absurd nature and, perhaps, her desire to prove to someone at the service she really did love him. The vision in my mind gives me a little laugh.
"Why! Why?" she shouts again, plucking me straight from my thoughts as death—that reaper!—had done to her lost sweetheart. (I am making assumptions, for I'm not certain what this woman's connection is to the dead man in question, and yet I'm not convinced it matters much to me at all.)
Perhaps she should feel bad for me a moment. It is much less bothersome to weep than it is to hear weeping, don't you find? Yes, when you are miserable and wretched as this woman appears to be, you feel you are the only one on the entire world, isolated, stranded in your suffering. Abandoned in a desert, nowhere, where every sand in the never-ending waste is a reminder, alone, alone, alone, alone, alone, alone, until someday, you are buried in it, stifled, so far to hardly notice yourself.
Frankly, that sounds quite sweet to me now, and I'd like to go back to being alone, when I could barely tell I was alive, and scarcely noticed anyone. Oh, but you should know it was impossible not to notice this woman!
You'll see now what I mean as I describe our initial meeting. Well, it wasn't exactly a meeting as you'd traditionally think a meeting to be. It all began with a death yell from without my door that sent my head tossing so far I went toward it immediately, then away, as one does on a rocking boat, so supremely sickened!
The sound was the very same scream you hear in every Hollywood film, or near to every one, when, for example, a gentleman plunges from a ridge or gets devoured by an alligator. It's a hugely theatrical sound, which is, like as not, why I imagined her jumping wildly in her loved one's burial pit a few moments ago.
When I peeped through the crevice between the casing and the door itself, for my entry's made of timber and will shrink on occasion when the outside is freezing—at least that is what the old tenant told me when I moved in all but two months ago—I expected to see someone dying or already dead, so intense was that sound. But instead, I saw this woman writhing on the floor just outside the apartment next to mine.
My first intuition was to ignore her completely, but in the end, I chose to open the door. Not because I cared at all about her or what tortured her or if she was drunk (was she drunk? I asked myself) or whether people would see her there, twitching like a weak-struck bug, although I will say I was rather taken aback by this indecent display of emotion, and if her wailing itself weren't my foremost concern, it would surely have been my embarrassment at her manners.
You see, I have a severe problem with sounds. They are overly disturbing to me and get me rather hysterical after a while. In fact, I chose this apartment because it is a good way off from trains, stores, and busy streets, promising a quiet pullout from civilization, which was what I decided that, in the end, I needed. Am I lonely? No, I am not lonely. In fact, I brought with me a cat, although I had to get rid of her, for she groomed far too much and began to cack up a heinous amount of hairballs. The sounds still torment my sleep! And so I gave her to the woman down the hall, and I can visit her whenever I'd like, although I never intend to.
"Excuse me," I said.
She looked up from the ground, and her eyes eased when she saw me.
"Hello," she said. Her hair was hackly, as though she cut it herself on the train to town, snipping here and there, here and there, however her railcar jerked.
"Do you look for someone?"
"I do, but it appears he's not here." She carried on sobbing. I examined the hall, for I will again confess to being embarrassed and feared other residents had gently opened their doors to see what the stir was about. Then I took note of her black dress, which could have provided space for at least two more people, considering how exceedingly thin she was, is. Of course, this had me wondering whether I should offer to feed her or at least recommend her a place to eat, although the closest one is several blocks.
I puzzled over what to do and engaged in a session of agonizing self-doubt and debate, one like I have not had in quite some time, and I did not hope to have! The same is why I moved here, away from such things.
She cried again, now louder.
"You... you can wait inside until he comes back."
A smile slid across her face, and she got up slowly, brushing off her dress and walking into my apartment like she'd been there hundreds of times before. I was worried immediately, but the noise she made had ceased... at least for some time.
Once she was in my apartment (and to let you know, I smelled nothing like alcohol on her breath), tears began welling up again in her eyes. I could hear her trying to swallow the eruption that fought up her throat. It reminded me of when my sister once chose to never chew again but resolved instead to only swallow her food like a frog. There was one horrendous occasion when she sat at the kitchen table beside me with a cluster of grapes.... and the sounds....
The memory was so upsetting and caused me so much unhappiness, I almost grabbed the woman by the shoulders to shake her, yet I feared that would send her over the edge and cause her to explode. So instead I bit my lower lip, something I must do occasionally to control myself, and turned around, toward my stove.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" I got on to it before she had the chance to answer. This will give you some idea how desperate I was to make her be quiet. And I will say I have the highest faith that my fine tea recipe could soothe a wilder beast than her.
So, here I am now, still standing over the stove, looking into the kettle on the stove, spout open. I determine the water is boiling enough and pour the necessary amount into a cup of ground spices—ginger, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, and a trace of cardamom.
"Just a few more minutes," I say. I gaze stupidly at the countertop for some moments as I mix the cup. It's gotten quiet since I began making the tea, and I just realize I am rather relaxed, as though I were preparing to sit down with an old friend. I don't find it unpleasant, and if she happens to enjoy my tea and tells me it was, without a slight doubt, the best she's ever had before, all to the better.
"How long have you lived here?" she asks.
"Not very long."
"The man before you was a nasty old Pole," she says.
Well, perhaps that justifies the space between the door then, for I had a Polish acquaintance years ago who liked his rooms to be cold all year long and used his air cooler every season but winter, and sometimes even in the winter, maybe not every day but periodically, and he always grumbled that the chilliness would "shrink his wood." And then he would chuckle so enormously, and even harder at how much I disliked his coarse joke.
He'd say, "Of course, I mean the wood in my house, my doors, tables, you understand."
I set her cup of tea on the table. She simply looks at it. Nothing in particular arises on her face, except maybe a bit of timid curiosity. She carries on with her questions.
"And do you know your neighbors yet?"
"I don't know them very well yet, no."
I pick up a small jar of raw, pure honey and walk over to the table, spooning some to drop in her tea.
"No!" she shrieks, armoring her cup with her hands and shaking her head fiercely, as though I offered to poison her. Oh, what a germ she is! Could she not simply tell me she wouldn't want honey?
Quickly, everything feels more or less as before, and I return now to hating this woman, wanting her far gone away so that I may never have to deal anymore with her objections! Indeed, gone from my sight... and gone, too, from my ears, which are worse for her presence than anything!
"How about something to eat with your cup, then?"
I walk back to the counter and cut her a piece of the white bread I made yesterday.
She watches me put it down, and says finally, "Thank you, sir. This is all very friendly of you."
I nod. It is remarkably friendly of me, isn't it? I don't typically regard myself in that way, so, of course, it takes me a little time to understand, but I grasp it rather quickly. I feel a subtle appreciation for her in this instant, or else I'm cherishing myself, and admiring her respect of me. I must give her credit for that.
But whatever it be or was, it's passed, and now I know not what to do, nor what to say, nor how to proceed.
She walks toward the window, taking her slice with her, and begins to examine the shelves of curiosities above my bed. I decide to pour myself a cup of tea.
"What is this?" she asks, handling one of the trinkets the Pole—that he's Polish I've learned from her, as you know—left behind, a little wooden box with colorful folk designs, presumably for storing keepsakes.
"Some sort of knickknack, I believe. It belonged to that last man living here. He also left a beer in the refrigerator."
She giggles. The sound gives me a bit of a jolt, but nothing very disturbing. I'm not sure what my reaction is, in fact, and I most assuredly have never had it before, or not in quite some time.
I put a napkin on my saucer before setting my cup down and sitting at the table. I am pleased for a moment, and I feel how I imagine old, disagreeing couples feel who have been married for quite some years. Perhaps one no longer wants the other around, but the situation has become more acceptable as time passes. They do grow on each other, so to speak, in united sufferance, as vines or roots might raid a house after some time so that they are, however destructively, attached.
But then things get intensely quiet, limp, almost leaden, and suddenly, I cannot stand the silence I have preferred hitherto.
"Do you like the bread?" I ask.
"It's quite heavy," she says.
Ah! I knew I did not knead the dough longly enough. Her remark brings out how stodgy things have become in this apartment. How weary and tiresome it is to be with someone you don't know and is so very obnoxious! All of her taste in her mouth, this one! Have you ever had the feeling you never wanted to see anyone ever again? That is what's in me now, and not so long ago, I had done well seldom seeing anyone and so rarely having to deal with this kind of predicament. It's tiring enough to have to put up with the obnoxious people you do know, and I suppose that's what makes bad manners so insufferable from a stranger.
I very seriously prepare myself to send this woman back out in the hallway where she can return to her shameless temper and tears and what. It's worth nothing to me what she does! But just then a brutish knock comes at the door. I bite my lower lip.
"Mr. Manfred! Mr. Manfred!"
"Oh, please! The knocking!"
I rush to the door and look through the crevice, seeing the building master and another smaller man I do not know, and I think willingly to myself that they must be here for the woman. I was a pleasantly quiet man with no issues until she came along.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Manfred. How do you go?"
I don't respond, and I show on my face a look of absolute frustration at having been so harshly surprised and feel I could move on to say something like, "This was so rudely managed..." but the men begin talking again, and with more hurry and insistence than before.
"Mr. Manfred, we need to know whether a woman is there."
"I do find that to be any of your—"
"No, no, not a woman in that way, Mr. Manfred. Oh, I am so sorry for the confusion, Mr. Manfred, no. But a particular woman. She is short and thin with red hair, assumably wearing a black dress or something else black."
I look to her. She's eating her bread nervously and staring, waiting to see what I should say. Her fate, it seems, is in my hands.
"How's that again? What does she look like?"
"Skinny, red hair, wearing black," the building master says.
"Mr. Manfred, she has come here for years badgering us about a man who died quite some time ago in apartment 9, the one immediately beside yours," says the small man. "She is deranged, Mr. Manfred!"
I see the building master silently reprimand the small man. I imagine he gets overexcited quite often, for there is not much room in his body for anything extra, not for anything much of anything, possibly. Is he able to feed himself sufficiently? Does he risk drowning with a mug of water? But for such a little man, he can make a horrific amount of noise!
The woman begins crying.
"What's that sound? Mr. Manfred?"
"Oh, I'm running a bath," I say. I turn around to the woman and motion anxiously to the bathroom, expecting she knows I mean she must open the tap. I hate the racket the spout makes when the drain closes, but thankfully I can't hear too well, for I'm by the door, of course, and the two outside are muttering to themselves.
"Can we come in?" they ask.
"I fear you cannot, gentlemen."
They look at each other, and the small man frowns crushingly. They turn around to leave the hall, but not before the small man puts his lips between the crevice and whispers, "If you see her, Mr. Manfred, do not let her in."
I nod. "Feel free to go now. I'd like my peace and quiet."
He holds his hand up in a respectful apology, and the two disappear from the hall.
"Are they gone?" she asks.
"Yes. Did you turn off the bath?"
She does not answer.
"It's not true what they're saying. He's not dead. It's the truth! If it isn't, I wish I may be shot. No, he's not. I'm sure you've heard him next door playing his reed or singing at breakfast. No, he's not. I can't stand to hear those words!"
I don't say anything back. I can assure her I haven't heard any clangors or clamors or singing coming from next door, and that I would certainly know whether I had, if I had. But I choose, for whatever reason, to respect her wishes and keep those words from my mouth. The truth can be quite a cacophony, don't I know.
"Maybe he's at his mother's," she says, adjusting her enormous black dress and getting herself together to leave.
Yes, she should leave, and yet I feel a little in the same way I did when my sister announced she would leave our childhood home, at which point I had to sell my half of the property, too, and go alone to somewhere else I cared not for at all! That was before my living in this apartment, and it's a phase in my life I wish to forget.
"Perhaps he is," I say. "But if he's not, you should come back tomorrow and check apartment 9 again. And if he's still not home when you come by, you may wait here with tea."
She smiles. I bite my lower lip and do not let myself say anything more, for I'm in enough concern as it is.
"May I have this?" she takes out the keepsake box from her pocket. Her nerve is quite stunning, and I hold a moment before I respond, perhaps to make sure I heard her correctly and that it's actually the toy from the shelf I see in her hand, that she stowed it in her pocket all this time, perhaps wasn't going to say a word about it until some guilt seized her. But no, she doesn't have anything to do with guilt, this woman, or shame, and perhaps she planned to ask me all along for the little Polish trinket. That is, until we were rudely interrupted. I think of the Pole and wonder where he lives now, whether he moved home or elsewhere, somewhere cold or warm.
"You may," I say, for it's but an empty little box, and doesn't matter in all to me, not whatsoever, and I'd give her more of them if I had any. Why does anyone want an empty little box? An empty box, yes, although when she glances at it, and even in it, it's as though it were full with matter and meaning.