From the outside, the house looked like many others on the street: weathered, traditional, lived-in. The paint on the trim had peeled like the bark of an overwatered plant, but the boxwood shrubs stayed neatly clipped year-round. The iron lawn furniture, placed in an uneven circle, suggested a large family. Pizza deliverymen were always surprised to learn the house was divided into six apartments.
It was the first time I’d lived alone. My move from the city to this house in the suburbs was a reaction to the ending of a relationship. Just as my former boyfriend had returned — without a thank you — the VCR he’d borrowed from me, I’d returned his friends. The city, once inviting and generous, was now out of reach and indifferent. I’d resigned myself from love, and was decidedly against returning to my former preoccupation with looking for a lover. I wanted to avoid any hint of passion. Even walking the busy streets, I ran the risk of meeting couples holding each other close, sharing the same breath. I wanted to be where life was flat and steady, and parking was convenient. I found the three-story house that looked like a real family’s home.
For the first time in my life, no one waited up for me. If I didn’t come home one night, nobody would mind; were I bludgeoned to death in my apartment, days might pass before anyone would find me. (Of course, I was too young for that, I thought; only old people died alone and rotted.) It occurred to me then that this was loneliness: the absence of people who expect your presence, are needful of it, dependent on it.
But the porch light was always on for me when I came home after dark, and this was comforting.
For the entire year I lived there, I said no more than two words to the other residents — I had little chance. I worked at home editing textbooks, and rarely left or returned at the same time as my neighbors. From my second-story window, though, I could identify all five of them by the tops of their heads and shoulders. I never saw them with friends, or found out how they earned their livings.
The house itself was not dreary, but full of character. It had elaborate moldings, thick casings around the windows and doors, a mahogany banister on the stairs, and the pervasive smell of an old linen chest. But the thought of the six of us sitting in our separate corners of the house, never speaking to or knowing each other, was oppressive. I envisioned us spilling crumbs behind the cushions of our sofas as we quietly ate our meals in front of our TVs. I had never imagined so many lonely people all under one roof.
I knew that the man who lived directly above me had yellowing hair, rarely left the house, and was never gone for long if he did. He and the other third-floor resident were older, probably both well into their sixties. I first became truly aware of the man upstairs, however, when a loud sound woke me before dawn one morning. I sat up in bed, stiff and wild with fear, certain that someone was in my bedroom; for a minute I confused my own quick breathing with that of an intruder. But the room was empty. Then the harsh, thunderous creak of floorboards underneath the man’s feet continued.
For three months of summer I had heard nothing out of the ordinary from upstairs. It was only after I shut the windows to keep out the chill and turned off the noisy fan that I became privy to his every move. I heard the closet door in his room shut. I heard him pee in the middle of the night, and sometimes sneeze. Early in the morning, I heard water splash in the tub as he bathed. I heard the drone of his television, and his footsteps as he walked across the room to turn it off.
I am someone who likes silence. I like to wrap myself in it. I believe my mother must have been very quiet while I napped as a baby, because to this day I will wake up at the sound of the wind.
I tried to smother the creaking of the floorboards with my radio, but it persisted, rising above the music. Occasionally I heard the low murmuring of my neighbor’s television beneath me, or the clink of dishes being removed from a kitchen cabinet behind the wall I shared with the other second-floor tenant. But these traces couldn’t compare to what I endured of the man’s presence upstairs. With every footstep, his life invaded mine.
As I began to sink deeper into my solitude, however, I found a strange comfort in knowing this man was close by. If I came home after an evening in a crowded movie theater, the creaking floorboards were an almost welcome noise, something to ease the silence, the heavy weight of it. Though his comings and goings were few — he had no job, as far as I could tell — I learned to recognize his footsteps on the stairs. Tuesdays were wash days for him. I’d anticipate his departure, and watch as he carried his laundry down the street in a blue tub, its plastic shape crushed under one arm, the other arm swinging, the cuffs of his trousers lightly dragging the sidewalk.
Once, while picking up my mail, I noticed an outgoing postcard in the box marked #5, the man’s apartment. Hand trembling, I quickly pulled out the card. I didn’t so much read it as memorize the shape of its lines, the jagged script, the illegible signature. When I’d replaced it, what stayed with me were a Rhode Island address and the words kind invitation . . . Thanksgiving . . . arriving Wednesday. The fact that this man had friends or family to visit over the holiday surprised me. At first I wondered if I would enjoy the quiet of his absence, or if I would miss him. Then I remembered that I, too, would be visiting family.
I never saw him up close. I never heard his telephone ring. I never heard his voice (although I imagined he mumbled to himself when he couldn’t find his umbrella, when he had no money for Chinese food, when he couldn’t sleep at night). While I tapped on my keyboard, untangling definitions of chiaroscuro and pentimento for untrained liberal-arts students, I listened for him. If I could not hear him, I sat quietly until a noise told me where he was. Then I went back to work, satisfied that I was the person closest to him in the world.
When I set aside an afternoon to bake a pie, I gave no thought to what I would do with it. Baking was just a respite from the frustrating work of editing. I scooped white flour with a measuring cup, leveled it with a dinner knife, and poured it in a ring on a large cutting board. I diced a stick of cold butter and, with my fingertips, pressed the hard yellow chips into the flour until white dust concealed them. Then I poured cold water into the center of the mixture and worked it into a sticky paste, adding more flour as I went. When the dough just held together, I kneaded it until its surface was smooth as skin, broke the heavy clump in two, flattened the halves into small cakes, and placed them in the refrigerator.
As I waited for the dough to chill, I returned to my desk, and the daily business of stripping extraneous words from broad statements about symbolism or expressionism, rushing through decades of art history in the span of several paragraphs. I yearned to add to the two lines about Oskar Kokoschka’s painting The Bride of the Wind, to explain the bride’s calm repose (or was it despair?) and her lover’s hands, as agitated as the wind. Instead, I assisted in reducing entire canvases to a few phrases, fitting them into periods and movements.
When I needed a break I rinsed blueberries in a colander, breaking off their tiny stems with my thumbnail, then gently tossing the fruit dry. I licked blue drops from my fingers, then squeezed two lemon halves over the berries, and mixed in a little flour. I measured out sugar, pouring it evenly over the fruit until it formed soggy little hills.
By then, the dough was cold enough. With a wooden pin, I rolled the two cakes into flat disks, sprinkling flour over the moist parts. I placed one of the flattened circles into the pie plate, draping the edges over the sides, and scraped the blueberry mixture into it. Then I cut the other into inch-wide strips. My first attempt at weaving them into a lattice crust was futile: some were too long, and others broke apart because they were too thin. I started over more than once, balling up the dough and rolling it out again, cutting and weaving, until at last the pie went into the oven.
I dozed off in the late afternoon, made sleepy by the warm kitchen and the struggle for perfection. When I awoke that evening (had some noise from above roused me?), the pie lay untouched and completely cooled on an oven rack. Purple stains dotted the floor, and flour covered the countertop. The smell of dough still hung heavily. The whole effort, including the mess I’d made, seemed frivolous now. I doubted that I would be able to finish the pie in the next few days, and, at the moment, I wasn’t hungry for any of it. I considered giving it away, and immediately thought of the man upstairs.
Without hesitating, I carried the pie out into the hallway, and climbed the flight of stairs to the third floor, where I knocked boldly on the man’s door. Not a sound from inside. I breathed deeply; the air seemed thinner up here. While I waited, I examined the way the purple syrup had bubbled over the browned pastry. After a minute I set the pie down before the threshold and turned to leave. As I did, I noticed that a door in the hall opened into a bathroom, apparently shared by the two third-floor tenants. This was different from the other apartments. I was not welcome there. Leaning on the banister as I made my way back down, I realized that I was damp from worry or fear.
I closed my door behind me and stood still, listening. In a moment I heard his door open and close, his footsteps as he walked to the kitchen counter, and the sound of a drawer full of silverware being pulled out. Try as I might, however, I could not hear him eat.
I waited that night and all the next day for some sign of appreciation, but none came. I was puzzled at first; then a splinter of resentment rose in me. For the next several days, I brooded over it, but could make no sense of his silence, his blatant ungratefulness. Then, just when I’d pushed all thoughts of the event from my mind, I found the spotless plate outside my door with a piece of paper bearing two penciled words: “Thank you.”
This exchange took place four or five times over the next several months. I baked an apple pie with apples I’d handpicked from an orchard. I plucked the stems off cherries, and scraped the inside of a pumpkin. I practiced my meringue until it was more than an inch thick. Always, he returned the plate within a week, accompanied by his simple expression of gratitude.
I enjoyed baking from scratch, I told myself, and had plenty of time to do it. I wish I could say this was the only reason for the gesture. But it was always the thought of him, alone and restless — in quarters less private and perhaps smaller than I’d assumed — that made me want to roll out the dough and wash and peel the fruit. I had no one else to give to.
One morning, when the snow had not yet melted, I thought I heard a sound at my door while I was washing dishes. I paused for a moment, turning my head to listen, then continued to rinse the soapy dishes under the tap. Within a half-hour, lights flashed outside the window as an ambulance and a firetruck pulled up out front. The house vibrated with the sound of feet pounding on the stairs. I opened my door to find several paramedics huddled over the man from upstairs. Close your door, ma’am, one instructed me. I watched from my window as the paramedics emerged from the house with the man on a stretcher, his head wobbling, and carried him to the ambulance. Perhaps we all stood at our windows, all five of us, as witnesses to his death as well as his life. I don’t know.
When the house was quiet, I opened my door once more. The housekeeper who swept and mopped the hallways each week stood over a puddle of vomit. He’s gone, she said in a quiet voice; the man who lived upstairs had a heart attack. He’ll probably die, she went on, her head bent over the circling mop. When I got here this morning, he was lying on the floor. I knocked on your door — did you hear anything? Her eyes met mine. She did not ask in an accusing tone, but out of earnestness. I told her that I hadn’t, that I had been running the water in my kitchen.
Of course, I’d thought I’d heard something, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that now. Had he still been conscious when she’d found him? I was afraid to ask. I did not want to know the details.
The man upstairs left no unfinished business with me: he had returned the last plate weeks before, along with his terse note.
I’ve read that it takes half the length of time a relationship lasted to heal from its breakup. I waited a few weeks before knocking on the door of my landlord, who lived across the street. He was about my age, perhaps a few years older, with white teeth and a dimpled smile. I asked him about the man who had died. He said the man’s name was Wallace McElroy, and he had lived in that apartment for nearly twenty years. It won’t be rented again, he continued. Those third-floor rooms with their tiny kitchens and shared bathroom were meant for bachelors years ago.
He was a nice man, I offered. My landlord agreed, then added that there had been some difficulty notifying his family about his death. Wallace hadn’t spoken to his brothers for years; they’d had some sort of falling-out. I was quiet for a moment, then said: Up close, people are hard to love. From a distance, they’re easy. I told this to my landlord, who lived with his wife and young child. He looked confused and said, Yes, that’s true, I suppose, and then we said goodbye.
I fed the man who lived upstairs. I baked him sweets, but I could not save him, and he died outside my door. I never met him, and yet for a while I knew his every move. He thanked me for my acts of kindness, but not to my face, where he could see the color of my eyes or smell the perfume on my wrist.