When the old flip-number alarm clock went off in the morning, Lester Caldwell was already doing sit-ups in his checkered skivvies and cotton undershirt. Then jumping jacks, push-ups, and toe-touches -- he did his routine with the serene focus of a Buddhist monk. The steady thud of his heels on the pocked wooden floor, the pops of his joints, and his wheezing breaths set a course for his pulse.
Lester didn't take his daily constitutional until after a cup of strong black coffee and a thorough perusal of the morning paper, but these days it was growing more difficult to focus on the printed page before him. As he brushed the crumbs of dry toast from his chest, his eyes blurred and his head swam.
There was only so much that could be done about Lester's chronic fatigue. It wasn't his fault he couldn't sleep; his rowdy neighbors were to blame. They moved to the apartment above him three months ago and kept ungodly hours, sometimes blaring music and stomping through their primitive dance moves until dawn. Before the new neighbors moved in upstairs, his life had been quiet and soothing in its regularity; there was a comforting somnambulance to his routine. Now the neighbors' constant disruptions affected even his internal regularity! In the beginning, he would only grit his teeth and turn up the television volume as some elephantine creature tromped about upstairs, but lately the unexpected outbursts of laughter from above could leave him constipated for days.
Lester first tried the old standard: banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. The ceiling was too high for him to reach, so he climbed up on a chair and stretched out on his tiptoes. Teetering uncertainly on the rickety old chair, he strained his thin arm and its broomstick extension, but was barely able to tap the high ceiling. The feeble knocks of the broom-end against the brittle plaster were no match for the neighbors' blaring stereo, and Lester climbed down from his chair with a grumpy "Harrumph!"
Next he spent an afternoon in the neighborhood park, gathering pebbles until he filled a grocery bag. He lugged his supplies home, arms aching from the dead weight, and collapsed on the sofa with exhaustion. For over an hour, Lester methodically chucked pebbles at the ceiling, listening benignly as Dan Rather related the day's events on television. He threw one pebble every thirty seconds or so, aimed a safe distance from the dingy light fixture. The passive-aggressive gesture calmed him somewhat, though he quickly realized that the neighbors couldn't hear the pebbles' docile pecks over the throbbing of their so-called music. During the next day's walk, he filled his pockets and another grocery bag with larger rocks, all big enough to cover the palm of his hand. That evening, he pelted his replenished munitions supply at the ceiling, only conceding defeat when plaster started falling down in musty, heavy chunks.
Lester began to have regular headaches as a result of the ruckus from above. He couldn't even hear sounds coming from the street anymore! The myriad urban noises had been comforting to him before, but now the sound of an entire city was drowned out by the noise from a single apartment! After the first few weeks, he resolved to approach the neighbors with reason and tact. They were people, after all, with parents who'd hopefully raised them well. Maybe they just didn't realize that the walls in this building were so thin? He donned a clean, starched shirt and the tie his late wife had given him as a retirement gift. He marched up the stairs and knocked on the door, elated by his decision to proactively address the problem. He waited for a while and then knocked again, louder this time. Seconds passed like hours as Lester waited, knocking and pounding intermittently. A neighbor from down the hall poked his head out the door and cursed extensively at Lester in an unknown language, then slammed the door with finality. How was it possible for those neighbors, three apartments down, to hear Lester's knocking, but these neighbors couldn't? Unbelievable! He pressed his ear against the door as tinkling female laughter rose above a dully pulsing bass line.
Lester's heart sank. Who were these people? Who played their music so loudly that they couldn't hear someone pounding on the door? It couldn't be safe to be so oblivious! What kind of parents raised children like these, setting them loose upon the unsuspecting world? Lester returned to his apartment with disappointment settling deep in his intestines.
After several more days of sulking in his once peaceful apartment, he purchased some earplugs. To his dismay, they made his ears ache and worsened his migraines. He appealed again to the indifferent super, but received no response. By this point his head pounded constantly, his eyes stung, and waves of nausea periodically rolled over him like a hot wind rushing over a parched field. It seemed as though the Fates had sentenced him to some sort of aural purgatory -– he must have done something terribly wrong in the past, and hadn't even realized it! He racked his memory for some recollection of a forgotten sin. Stealing bubblegum at the age of six? Beating up Kit Malone in grammar school? Kissing that red-lipped floozy three months after his wife's funeral? None of it seemed to warrant the great plague now upon him. Above every move he made, over every thought that passed through his tortured skull, was the unnatural clamor of the neighbors' persistent drums and screaming guitar riffs. He had reached the point of unfettered desperation.
One afternoon, Lester found himself laying face down on the sofa, resting his brow against a pillowcase filled with ice cubes in an attempt to calm his headache. The ice cubes clicked and hissed at one another, slowly melting, with only Lester's weary ears as witnesses. He could actually hear the steady trickling of solid-to-liquid inside the dampening pillowcase, and it seemed just as loud as the ruckus from overhead. He licked his dry, cracked lips and tasted salt. By God, was he crying?!? This was unacceptable, things had gone too far. A grown man should never be reduced to a whimpering, prone crybaby hugging a wet pillow! It was too much! He was certain he'd done nothing in his many years to deserve this.
Lester resolutely dumped the remaining ice cubes in the sink and considered the sopping wet pillowcase in his hands. He couldn't conceive of removing the wet cloth from his head much longer; the moment he relieved the pressure from his temples, his migraine pulsed at full force. He needed all his faculties about him for this confrontation, so he wrapped the sopping wet pillowcase around his head, knotting it in the back as he imagined a samurai would before battle. He tromped upstairs again, rivulets of fluid dripping down his cheeks like sweat. He arranged his features into a long-suffering expression and briskly rapped on the neighbors' door.
Surprisingly, a young man opened the door almost immediately. Looking askance at the pitiful figure before him, the neighbor ran smooth fingers through his tousled hair and smiled politely: "Can I help you?"
Lester suddenly remembered the wet pillowcase wrapped around his head and felt out of sorts. After his last attempt to confront them, he'd been certain that the upstairs neighbors were incapable of answering the door. He realized he hadn't expected an answer this time either; yet here was one of them... and barely a child -- maybe eighteen or nineteen, if that. This must be their first apartment since moving away from home, Lester surmised. The boy, who introduced himself as Cameron, had jarringly smooth skin, interrupted only by the occasional blemish of youth. His attire was stained and torn, but there was something intentional about its imperfections. Why, those jeans were perfectly torn above both knees! What an odd idea… for ventilation, perhaps? But why didn't the young man just put on a pair of shorts?
Lester cleared his throat and adjusted the towel atop his head, feeling acutely ancient. "I live right underneath you, young man, and your music is simply too loud to be tolerated." The words poured out of his mouth, without permission and seemingly without forethought, and fell like turds onto the doormat at his feet. After all, it was the truth… but something about it seemed so wrong! What was it he'd wanted to say? He couldn't recall -- but he suddenly remembered the wet pillowcase atop his balding pate, the moisture dripping down his forehead in a most undignified way. Why was he wearing a wet pillowcase, anyway? Earlier he'd felt it made his suffering seem more profound. But now here he was, with the enemy face to face -- and the enemy was just a boy. Lester realized the sopped cloth wrapped bizarrely around his head made him look like some sort of drowned Punjabi.
Cameron apologized sincerely for the noise and invited Lester in for a beer. The cheery clink of beer bottles echoed from the apartment, punctuating the boy's invitation. Lester was momentarily tempted by the unexpected hospitality but declined, chuckling at the audacity of the young man. All he really wanted was to remove himself from this strange predicament, not to befriend his adolescent neighbors. Were they even old enough to drink anyway? He took Cameron's eager handshake with a gruffly paternal farewell: "Try to keep it down from now on, and don't hesitate to knock if you need anything." He returned to his apartment confident that victory had been won.
Indeed, it was relatively quiet that night… but the respite was short-lived. The next evening, music swelled and throbbed until almost four a.m. without pause. Lester didn't bother to hide his rage as he stormed up the stairs and pounded on the neighbors' door. His fists pummeled the wood in a hollow beat that synched with the heavy drums seeping from the apartment. He knocked long and hard until someone down the hall opened their door and screamed at him to give it up already. How could Cameron not hear him? They must be ignoring him! He pressed his ear to the door at the very moment when the CD began to skip. His heart swelled with hope -- now someone would run to the stereo to correct the disjointed music, and in the interim he could renew his knocking. They had to hear him then! But the skipping continued unabated, so he waited longer for the thudding of footsteps or a shout from one roommate to another. He stared at the door intently, first with a comically expectant expression, then with his jaw agape. No one was home! They left, forgetting to turn the stereo off! Now no one would turn it off! He'd have to listen to that mind-scratching ruckus all night, and possibly most of tomorrow!
He could see it all now -- the neighbors waking up in a strange apartment, on a dirty couch, in the late afternoon (or next Saturday). Maybe they'd gone off on one of those spring break things! What month was it? October . . . maybe they'd gone off on one of those fall break things! They would be bleary-eyed from partying until dawn (or all week), while Lester Caldwell sat on his own couch in his own lovely familiar apartment, clawing his ears bloody like a mangy cat with mites.
Lester returned to his apartment and stood in the center of the living room, desperately scanning his surroundings for a solution. He gasped with sudden inspiration and darted to the window, strong-arming it until it finally opened and spewed leaden paint chips onto the sill and floor. Slipping one leg out the window and then the other, Lester felt a surge of physical strength that he hadn't experienced in decades. A chill autumn wind whipped his flannel pajamas about him as he pulled himself up and stood with feet solidly planted on the fire escape. He crept lithely up the ladder like a disheveled Navy SEAL until he could peer in through the neighbors' living room window. Sure enough, there was no one there. He waited, crouched beside the window, for any sign of movement within the apartment. The only sign of life was some sort of lamp on the coffee table; a strange conical contraption, which glowed eerily as globs of colored fluid undulated up and down inside the plastic cone. The lamp, in its bizarre palpitations, was enviably unaware of the unholy din coming from the stereo.
Who knew when the neighbors would come home? What if they were on some sort of booze-and-girls binge and didn't come home for days? He'd been a young buck himself and remembered well the prurient drives of youth! Lester was torn. What was he going to do? He couldn't live with the noise, but there was no way to turn it off. He didn't have money to stay in a hotel room, and he never slept well in strange beds anyway. He could call the super, but no one would answer and he'd just leave a message that would never be returned.
His former energy completely lost, Lester was utterly defeated and turned to climb down the fire escape. The CD inside paused ingratiatingly, and Lester's heart surged with grateful disbelief. Had it stopped? Was that it? Was it over, at least for now? But not even three seconds later, the CD switched to the next track and began its skipping anew, the devilish clamor mocking him.
Lester's face went hot with fury. It wasn't right! It was a public nuisance; it was illegal to drive people insane in such a manner! Repetitive pulses of electronic malfunction -- why, it was the equivalent of torture! Sleep deprivation, light exposure, interrogations in a moldy cell under an anemic fluorescent bulb for hours on end –- nothing compared to this!
He had no choice!
Lester fell upon the windowpane with full force, smashing in the window and knocking out the jagged glass remnants with no regard for his now-bleeding fists. He climbed through the shattered opening and fumbled around in the dark of the room. While the CD skipped, cheerful and incessant in its forgetfulness, he stumbled over soft clumps of what felt like clothing and tried to find his way to the source of the music. The dim room took on the feeling of a carnival fun house, with the strange lights and nightmarish skipping of music, but Lester barely noticed. He was possessed only by the adrenalin surging through his veins.
Finally his eyes adjusted to the dark and, noticing the LCD display of the stereo, he dove for it and banged clumsily at the display with thick fingers. Finally, the power went off.
Silence! Beautiful, perfect, all-consuming silence! Even the walls seemed to heave a sigh of relief. The sound of sirens floated through the broken window on a cool, autumn breeze. A car horn honked and someone yelled something unintelligible in response. A faucet somewhere in the apartment dripped lazily, and a cricket in the corner of the room chirped with approval. Beautiful, perfect, all-consuming silence! Lester was sure he'd never known true happiness until that moment.
Then he heard a key turn in the door.
Panic took him in a wave of heat, fear numbing him from head to toe. Dodging to and fro in the meager light, his movements wild with desperation, he finally dove under a futon and lay flat on his stomach, pulling various cloth items and inexplicable pieces of trash around him to conceal his slight frame.
When the light came on, the ludicrousness of his situation struck him to the core. He, a Korean War veteran, was staring down the gaping maw of a discarded McDonald's French fry container in some kid's apartment, hiding beneath a cheap piece of convertible furniture. Ceding to the indignity of his predicament only briefly, Lester tried to contrive a feasible exit. Maybe they wouldn't see him and he could wait them out! He would sneak out when they were in the bathroom, or maybe after they'd fallen asleep. It might take a while, but he could lay here until the moment was right.
Lester heard the jangle of keys falling onto a wooden surface, probably a table. There were shuffled footfalls, a couple of mumbles and a cough, then silence.
One of the neighbors whispered hoarsely:
"Whoa. . ."
Like a petulant child caught in the act, Lester wallowed in the unfairness of it all. Why, their apartment was more silent now than it ever had been! Even the cricket in the corner had fallen into shocked soundlessness. Lying there prone, he longed to throw a spectacular temper tantrum, screaming and kicking.
But he couldn't move; he lay as though paralyzed. It was still as a grave while the two boys pondered the pair of strange, slipper-clad feet protruding out from under the futon. Lester held his breath and screwed his eyes tightly shut for what seemed like hours; he dreaded opening them again. He heard the metal frame above him shudder and squeak several times, so he ventured a peek. He relaxed his right eyelid slightly, slowly.
An upside-down head dangled before him, and its upside-down smile appeared strangely malevolent in its inverted familiarity. The effect worsened when the grotesquely reversed mouth began to move.
"Hey, there! Wanna come out now?"
Could Lester close his eyes again, pretend they hadn't made eye contact, and wait for them to leave? Or, better yet, if he could give them some sort of reasonable explanation for this, some outlandish yet credible reason for his presence in their apartment, perhaps then they would be the ones apologizing. He allowed himself a second of reckless, grasping hope, but he knew full well that this was not a perfect world and he was guilty of breaking and entering. Lester Caldwell prided himself on his pragmatism, after all. He heaved a sigh of resignation and rolled out from under the futon, his every limb protesting the unnatural movement. Dusting himself off and picking random crumbs from his pajama pants, he eyed his neighbors with all the dignity he could muster. He opened his mouth to explain, but no words came out, and instead he gaped at them like a fish, mouth opening and closing soundlessly. Another car horn sounded through the open window, tattling on Lester with the absence of the glass. Cameron glanced past Lester and finally noticed the broken window. The boy's eyes widened as he realized the old man in his home was an intruder and not someone's misplaced grandparent. Turning back to Lester, his tone was accusatory: "What the hell are you doing in here?"
There was anger in Cameron's voice, and rightly so, Lester knew. He surveyed the boy from head to toe, understanding that he had no chance in a scuffle with the two younger men. His eyes flitted over their unkempt mops of hair, wrinkled t-shirts, and Cameron's carelessly unzipped fly, and a wave of indignation swept over him. He straightened his shoulders and raised his right fist into the air, pointing at the neighbors with it. "Your stereo was skipping for over four hours!!!" Balling his fists at his sides, planting his slippers firmly on the grimy carpet, Lester proceeded to tell his two neighbors exactly how he felt, and how he had suffered as a result of their devil-may-care lifestyle. His tone was measured at first, but gradually built into a crescendo of pent-up victimizations, one spilling out after the other.
His rage waned rather quickly, but he was still shouting clichés about respect and common courtesy when he noticed how their faces had changed. The young men, instead of bearing the expressions of amused curiosity that had so infuriated him, now regarded him with wooden indifference. He realized: no longer was he the eccentric old man who lived below, who'd knocked on their door with a soaked, homemade turban wrapped above his wrinkled brow. Then, there had been something redeeming in his imploring manner, but now he was just the asshole stick-in-the-mud whose intolerance had driven him to break into their apartment. He was no longer of interest, he was no longer unique. He was like every other old man who'd scolded or scowled at them, begrudging them their youth.
Lester's voice trailed off and his shoulders slumped. The wrinkles around his mouth clustered together, then dispersed in tired spasms as his fists unraveled, flaccid. Without another word, he brushed past the young neighbors, aiming blindly for the exit with arthritic hands.
Lester moved a month later.
He'd been putting it off -- his lease was about to end, it was growing increasingly difficult to climb all the stairs, and the apartment was too big for one person, anyway. The neighbors were even louder now; after Lester's desperately criminal act, their stomping and the volume of their music had reached a defiant crescendo. He had no other recourse but to move.
He was quite satisfied with his new abode. It was close to a subway stop, had an elevator, and was a building committed to the "senior community;" thus, it was quiet. The first night Lester slept like a baby, a faint smile playing at his lips. He didn't move a limb until the old flip-number alarm clock went off, blaring the news with a renewed zest for life. Lester jumped out of bed, pulled on his slippers, and attacked his morning sit-ups with unbridled energy. He did his jumping jacks, push-ups, and toe-touches. He even added a new routine to his morning work-out: a concoction of awkward stretches which, to him, resembled yoga. He sipped his coffee and read through the paper with an attentiveness that had been absent for months, maybe even years. When he went outside for his daily constitutional, he wore a new pair of discount store sneakers, still dazzling in their clinical whiteness. The morning was bright and clear; even the sidewalks appeared freshly scrubbed and spotless. Lester inhaled deeply, nodding with satisfaction.
However, Lester couldn't sleep the second night. Lying there in bed, with the lights turned out, the quiet was all-consuming. It surrounded him, wrapping him in a shroud of silence. The lack of noise was too complete, too encompassing. There was no light coming in through the window -- the neighboring building was too close to allow in any of the city's muted moonlight. Lester felt as though he'd been locked in a coffin. The shuffle of his sheets comforted him as he tossed and turned, for even the smallest of sounds teemed with life. Finally he threw the coverlet to the floor and switched on the lamp, tugging on his pants with exasperation.
Driven by an inexplicable urge, he took a cab to his old building and stood outside under the shelter of a stunted maple. Rain drizzled lazily onto the street, steaming as it hit the warm pavement. A young woman stumbled out of the building and down the front stoop, bumping against him with the sour stench of cheap whisky. Lester pushed past her and caught the door, slipping inside before it locked. The familiar scent of stale urine and curry calmed him instantly. He scaled the first few flights of stairs with the energy of a man half his age, ducked out of an open hall window onto the fire escape, and climbed to the seventh floor. There, panting and peering in through the window of his old abode, he gently forced open the familiar living room window and slipped into the still-vacant flat.
Above him, the neighbor's music thumped with the same old monotone rhythm, but now it felt oddly like a lullaby. He shook his head, chuckling at himself -- before, the noise had been jarring and infuriating, but now it was soothing. How was that even possible? He didn't know and he didn't care. Lester Caldwell stretched out on his back on the hardwood floor, spreading his arms and legs over the dusty floorboards, and fell soundly asleep.
He woke before sunrise and crept out the window, closing it carefully behind him. So this was what those newfangled shrinks were calling "closure!" He felt as though an invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Experiencing the neighbors' noise from a new perspective had helped him see his own part in the old, infuriating situation… and he no longer resented the young neighbors for driving him out of the apartment he'd lived in for years. They were good kids, and he was an old cranky coot. The thought no longer bothered him the way it used to –- it was just the way things were. He'd been thoughtless and inconsiderate in his youth, as well. Wasn't everyone, to a certain extent? If the neighbors were lucky, they'd make it to his age, and they'd turn into cranky old coots, too.
He absently hummed an old army hymn as he brewed a pot of strong black coffee. As he started to unfold the morning paper, he realized that, since his routine had been disrupted by sleeping in his old flat, he'd forgotten to do his daily calisthenics!
Lester launched himself into his morning exercises with renewed vitality. His feet thudded soundly against the floor as his hands clapped together over his head and he tacked on an extra twenty jumping jacks, just for good measure.
In 9A, the apartment just below Lester Caldwell's, Rita Strachan gritted her teeth and shook her fist at the reverberating ceiling with a grumpy "Harrumph!"
What the hell was that new neighbor doing up there?!?
L.R. Collier started writing as soon as she learned how to hold a pencil, crafting shameless knock-offs of "Anne of Green Gables" and other classic works. She lived in Moscow studying literature from 2005-2006, and received an MA in Russian from Middlebury College in 2007. Nowadays, Ms. Collier strives to avoid the fan-fiction mishaps of her youth and writes strictly original works of literary fiction and poetry.