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The Downstairs Neighbor

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After college my boyfriend and I went our separate ways and I moved into an apartment that I could more easily afford on my own. It was one of those modern apartment complexes with paper-thin walls (and apparently floors), a cookie-cutter layout, and minimal landscaping. Despite their bright white sterility, my rooms decorated up nicely and most of the other inhabitants of Greenfield Court were good, kind people. My only real complaint was my downstairs neighbor.

The elderly man who lived directly below me was one of those neighbor-from-hell types that you read about on the internet. Despite his age he must have had incredibly acute hearing because all the normal sounds of other people’s everyday living bothered him. Washing dishes, running water, watching TV, using kitchen appliances, walking, talking; you name it and he would pound on the wall or ceiling with his cane to let you know that he heard you and wanted you to shut up. This “Morse code” was his main form of communication because he kept to himself and rarely left the house. I met him only after I had already lived above him for over a month. As far as I could tell he didn’t actually need the cane to walk and only used it for banging on the walls.

Mr. Downstairs, as I had started to refer to him, was lenient the first week while I moved in and got settled. After that he started pounding on the ceiling with his cane whenever I walked too loudly. I had heard all the talk about this grouchy old man from my other new neighbors, but I still respected Mr. Downstairs as an elder and I didn’t want to bother him. I suspect that the families living on either side of him must have felt the same, because I can think of no other reason why Mr. Downstairs was allowed to continue his unpleasant behavior without consequence. All the other tenants seemed to have just accepted the situation and adapted. As a new member of the community I didn’t want to make trouble, so I followed suit. Anyhow, I couldn’t really afford to move again so soon.

At first I tried to walk more quietly and then started wearing socks when it got colder. It didn’t really help because he still pounded with his cane in the morning while I got ready for work and in the evening until he went to sleep around 9:30. “I bet you could have a real jam session with this guy if you stomped back” my best friend once commented. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I was tempted to do just that! I often lightheartedly complained to my brother about the situation. He sent me padded bedroom slippers and a pair of tap dance shoes for Christmas as a joke. I used the slippers during the winter and put the tap shoes in my closet in case I ever felt like starting a war with Mr. Downstairs.

After my finances had recovered from the initial rent payments I bought some throw rugs to muffle my footsteps and beautify my home. This helped a little and Mr. Downstairs and I reached a sort of unspoken agreement: I would try to walk as silently as possible and he would usually only pound on the ceiling when I was rushing around getting ready on weekday mornings and when I came home to make dinner and do chores. And when I had friends over. Or if I dropped something. Ok, Mr. Downstairs was still a major pain in the butt, but at least he left me alone when I was quietly reading in the evenings and on the weekends. For some reason I also seemed to be able to walk freely at night while he slept. I started taking naps after work and staying up later to take advantage if this nightly reprieve. The situation held steady like this for almost a year.

In late august Mr. Downstairs’ hearing seemed to improve tenfold so that even the lightest steps set him off. I was spending a lot of time outside so I didn’t really notice the change until he started pounding on the ceiling for the first time in the middle of the night. I had gotten up to get a glass of water and the instant the pad of my foot touched the floor he started aggressively tapping. The first taps startled me and I almost dropped my glass. I assumed Mr. Downstairs probably just couldn’t sleep that night and ignored the racket he was making. The tapping became banging as I walked to the kitchen and the noise didn’t stop until I had gotten back in bed.

Mr. Downstairs was quiet until afternoon the next day. So was I. He was obviously catching up on lost sleep and I didn’t want him to be awake and making noise any time soon. As usual he pounded on the ceiling occasionally while I cooked and cleaned. Around 10:30 pm I started my nightly yoga routine. Five minutes in Mr. Downstairs pounded the ceiling directly below me, revealing that he was once again having trouble sleeping. The sound vibrated up through my feet. I continued doing poses for another few minutes, but gave up when the noise ruined the meditative quality of the exercises. I went to bed early and in a bad mood, but lay awake for a long time because I had slept in the day before.

I woke up early and unrested on Sunday morning. There wasn’t so much as a tap from Mr. Downstairs’ cane all day, not even when I accidentally let a door slam loudly. Such a disturbance would normally have elicited a barrage of angry cane-tapping from below. He made up for it that night though, banging on the ceiling and walls intermittently in response to every sound and to nothing at all. Making up for lost time. One floor below, Mr. Downstairs followed my every movement as I walked around, knocking on his ceiling and sending vibrations up into my feet.  He always seemed to know exactly where I was. In light of this harassment it no longer seemed necessary to make an effort to be quiet for him. I sang in the shower and slammed a few doors as I got ready for bed. The tapping didn’t stop until early morning.

It was so hard to drag myself out of bed and go to work on Monday morning. I came home after dark, in a terrible mood, and collapsed onto the couch for a nap. A couple of hours later I was startled awake by a loud, unprovoked knocking from downstairs. I tried to go back to sleep, but it happened again a few minutes later. And then again!

“I bet you could have a real jam session with this guy if you stomped back.”

I had tried to be a good neighbor, I really had, but enough was enough and now it was on! I stomped three times. Mr. Downstairs pounded from below with his cane. I stomped again, he responded and soon we had a nice little exchange going.

I prepared for war by retrieving the tap dance shoes from the closet and starting my favorite playlist on my computer. Once the shoes were strapped on I did a few experimental stomps and hops. The metal soles made a satisfyingly sharp clacking sound on the wooden floor. Mr. Downstairs intensified his pounding and once I was sure he was directly under me, I started dancing in earnest. I kicked the throw rugs to the edges of the room and whirled and stomped all around. Soon I had a feel for the shoes and was able to dance a loud and unskilled jig to every song. Mr. Downstairs pounded the ceiling with his cane from below.  It was tit for tat, knock for knock. The midnight war-dance was exhilarating and cathartic and I soon lost track of time. Heedless of what the other neighbors might think, I danced until the playlist ended.

When the music stopped I realized I didn’t hear Mr. Downstairs’ cane knocking anymore. I listened for a minute while I tried to catch my breath. No sounds from downstairs. I stomped. No response, only silence. Again. Still nothing. Well, that sure shut him up, didn’t it! Satisfied, I took off the tap shoes and curled up on the couch to finally get some sleep.

The next morning I was still exhausted, but also strangely energized. Revenge is sweet. All was still quiet downstairs. I felt no shame for the disturbance I had created last night and left for work in a very good mood.

There were several police cars and a medical transport vehicle in front of the apartment complex when I got home that night. Some of my neighbors, as well as a few passerby were standing around observing. All of the activity seemed to be centered on my apartment! Or no, the one below it. Could this have something to do with my wild revenge dance the night before? My mind raced. Had I given Mr. Downstairs a heart attack? Was it possible that he had been pounding so incessantly because he needed help? I rushed over to the nearest group of gawking neighbors to find out what was going on.

I was told that Mr. Downstairs had started banging on the walls again after I had gone to work. One of the next-door neighbors had finally decided to confront him about his behavior, but Mr. Downstairs didn’t pick up the phone, so the woman went and knocked on his door. When he again didn’t answer she became aware of an odor. The police were called to investigate. They entered the apartment and discovered the decomposing body of Jacob Booker, better known as Mr. Downstairs. He had been dead for about a week.

Nobody knew what to think. The police, confused by the inconsistencies between when Mr. Booker died and the times the noise complaints supposedly took place, questioned many of the people who lived in the same apartment block.  Thankfully no mention was made of my antics the night before. Eventually it was determined that Jacob Booker died of natural causes and his body was taken away. One of the investigating officers had, for lack of a more plausible explanation, halfheartedly suggested that the knocking sounds everyone had heard were caused by air bubbles in the water pipes. After all, the bathroom faucet had been left running for a week. Yeah sure, just air bubbles banging in the pipes.

My neighbors and I stood on the front lawn talking through the distressing events of the day for a long time after the police left. No one discussed the “noisy plumbing”. None of us wanted to go back inside. The conversation turned to more mundane topics in an attempt to regain some normalcy. When the sun had set and the chill we all felt was more due to the cool temperature than anything else, we one by one returned home.

Even with the lights on, I couldn’t sleep that night. I listened to the empty rooms below me and thought about what could have happened to me as a consequence of antagonizing a spirit. Or what might still happen, because unnervingly an occasional tapping noise could still be heard from downstairs. I told myself it was just my other neighbors making noise. Or the air in the plumbing. I tried to ignore the goose bumps running along my spine.  For the rest of the week I slept with the covers over my head, very still, all body-parts tucked safely underneath and my eyes clamped tightly shut, just like when I was little. I didn’t hear the tapping sound again after Booker’s next of kin collected his belongings

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