I long ago decided that my next-door neighbors were mass murderers. They are nice, quiet, neat, and “keep to themselves.” In fact, I couldn’t confidently identify either one of them on the sidewalk or in a police line-up, I so rarely see them come or go. And I have never heard any noise coming from their apartment. I only know that they are home because of the cigarette smoke. The smell of it seeps through the wall, from their living room to mine. When it becomes particularly strong, so that I feel overpowered when sitting on my sofa, I surmise that they are home.
When my husband and I moved in, I considered Febreze-ing the entire wall, but the fear that the fabric spray would stain the cheap white paint stopped me. Then, for several months, I thought about hanging a car air-freshener on their doorknob – as a hint. But after they collected our mail when we were on vacation, I was glad I hadn’t, and my husband bought them a bottle of wine instead. They appear to be a couple, about our age.
After 9/11, my husband and I began to joke (when we were able to), that our neighbors were not mass murderers, but terrorists. They were such model citizens, it was suspicious. When the man rang our doorbell one afternoon to ask, shyly, whether I would sign for a package if it came in his absence, I hoped his cohorts weren’t planning to try out a new strain of smallpox on me. Our neighbors had probably reported that we were capitalistic, messy and too irresponsible to arrange in advance to have our mail held at the post office – well deserving of death. I agreed to sign for the package, however – after all, he had been a good neighbor, not like the people upstairs.
Our upstairs neighbors specialize in noise, rather than air, pollution. When they first moved in and spent all day and most of many, many nights hammering, my husband claimed they were building bunk beds, so that the rest of their relatives could move in too. They already had a baby and a pair of elderly parents living with them, and various young men did follow, it seemed in shifts. From the sounds of it, our neighbors have stacked their furniture against their walls in order to save space, and prepare for each meal by dragging that furniture across the hardwood floors, into position.
They have mercifully stopped wearing wooden clogs, however. Now they just stomp everywhere they go. The reverberations, along with the screech of skidding chairs, often drown out television shows my husband and I are trying to watch – or maybe it is me, shrieking, “What are they doing up there?”
It is two a.m. and the upstairs neighbors are rolling bowling balls and heaving to the floor large, wooden chests full of pirates’ treasure. It is ten a.m. and the upstairs neighbor is crushing ice with a hammer on her kitchen counter. It’s noon and the neighbors are lunging and sparing in a spirited fencing match. It’s three p.m. and the upstairs neighbor is playing his bongo drums; as always, a steady, aggressive beat. It’s six p.m. and the upstairs neighbor is running back and forth between the kitchen and bedroom, as fast as she can in high heels. It is seven p.m. and the neighbors are playing musical chairs with very poor sportsmanship. It is ten p.m. and my husband and I are lying in post-coital bliss marred only by the sounds of hopscotch coming from above. It is three a.m. and the neighbors will be re-arranging their bedroom set for the next hour. When my husband complains, they tell him it is the baby, dropping toys.
Sitting in our living room on a quiet night in, we turn up the volume on our rented video and try not to breathe through our noses as my husband pours more wine. If our next-door neighbors are indeed mass murderers, we have decided to steer them towards the family upstairs.