Years ago, when I first started to live alone, I hoped for only a few things: reasonable rent, a decent landlord, and a set of normal neighbors. It turns out, the last one was the hardest to ask for.
The walls are thin in most of these old apartment buildings – some thinner than others. After I moved in, I noticed a distinct wailing from the unit next-door each and every night. It sounded like an older woman in a great deal of distress. But it wouldn’t go on forever. It’d only last about two hours: Whether it was 8 to 10pm, or 7 to 9 or even 6 to 8, it was always two hours. At first, I decided being a good neighbor meant leaving her alone to cry in peace. Maybe it was a part of her daily routine: cook and eat dinner, watch Matlock, weep for two hours. Crying is the only way some people know how to display emotion. It could have been cathartic for her. But only to a certain point.
After almost a month, the wailing continued on and on. Eventually I was embarrassed to invite friends over, worried she could begin her miserable routine at any time. It was at this point, I decided the way to be a good neighbor was to check in on her.
On about the fifteenth night in that apartment, I muted my TV, took a deep breath, and headed one door down the hall to introduce myself. I delivered three consistent knocks with my knuckle to the wooden red door with the number ‘19’ pinned to the center. As soon as the third knock rang out, the wailing stopped. For a moment, there was just silence. Then a seemingly scripted commotion began. The woman began speaking to someone. “Gerald, I think someone’s at the door.” Someone, presumably Gerald, whispered back. “Will you please get it? I’ve got a kettle on the stove.” The whispers grew louder to beat out the kettle’s hissing. A television blared what sounded like a football game, but it was May at the time – maybe a re-run. The chatter continued and got short and guttural, as if they were arguing. “Oh fine. One minute! I’ll be right there,” she called out in a shaky old voice.
A few moments later, I heard chain sliding and falling and a deadbolt clicking back. Then the door creaked open. I looked down to see my neighbor, hunched over with a silky purple polka dot nightgown draped over her shapeless body and a strap around the back of her lumpy neck that connected to the thick reading glasses covering her eyes. Her face looked rather young for the rest of her hunched figure. Something smelled rancid, but I couldn’t tell whether it was her or the apartment at first. It smelled like my parent’s basement right after that big flood from when I was five.
“Hello,” she said in a sort of sweet grumble.
“Hi,” I replied, suddenly at a loss for words. “My name’s Nick. I’m your neighbor. I – uh – I just moved in next door…I mean a couple weeks ago…and I heard some crying coming from your apartment and I just wanted to see if everything was okay.”
She waited a moment and sniffled. “Oh hello, Nick. I’m Wilma Quincy and I’ve lived here for…” she placed a hand on her chest which caused her nightgown to ripple and she looked off pensively into the hallway as if remembering a lifetime of sorrows. “Well a long time.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Quincy. And is everything okay in here?” “Yes. Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that I’ve been hearing crying every night for the last couple weeks since I moved in and I wanted to make sure everything was okay.” I looked over her ghostly nightgowned figure into apartment to see very little. There was a brown leather couch in the middle of the room that had seen its fair share of years with a a cheap floor lamp beside it, craned over the far cushion. But other than that, there was nothing. No pictures of family, no art on the walls, no coffee tables or end tables, or even a rug to cover up that warped wooden floor.
“Oh that?” she said with a dismissive click. “Rick, I’m an old, old woman and sometimes I just forget things. I do apologize if my crying is keeping you awake…”
“Not at all.”
“But sometimes in my old age I forget things – a lot of things. And see my kids live far away now and my husband passed a long time ago and when you get to be my age you’ve seen a lot of people and things come and go and now I just don’t have much, see? And when I lose things it’s just one more thing I don’t have. And then I worry that if I lose the last thing I could rely on, my mind, that I’ll lose my independence too. Then I’ll have nothing. It may sound dramatic, but the sieve is my mind in a way. They seem to be disappearing together.”
I was unexpectedly moved by her explanation. I almost wanted to cry too. “Your sieve? I could help you look for it.”
“Pish posh, it’s water off a duck’s back.”
“No really, it’s no problem.”
She thought for a moment, then tilted her head. “Well…if you don’t mind.” Ms. Quincy focused hard on her feet as she shuffled aside to clear the doorway. I stepped into the apartment and a stronger waft of that putrid stench assaulted my nostrils. When I spoke, I tried to keep my sentences short and use as little breath as possible in order to not breathe in more of it. “What’s a sieve?”
“You know…that thing. The one you use to drain water when you’re done cooking pasta. I was just pressing my ravioli and I swear I took the strainer out and placed it right on the cabinet over here, but by the time the water was done boiling I couldn’t find it anymore.”
I held the collar of my shirt over my nose and pinched it tight except when I was talking to her. Based on where she looked when we spoke, I got the sense that her vision wasn’t too strong. She was staring at the wall. It was dark, but I thought I noticed a black spot on that wall. “Okay, I’ll look for it.”
“It’s about this big,” she said using her hands. “And round and silver and – my sister’s husband got it for me from when he used to work at Williams-Sonoma out in the mall in New Jersey. I’ve had it for fifteen years. It’s the same one I used to teach Katie, my granddaughter, how to cook spaghetti. We’ve had that recipe in my family for generations now. My mother’s mother…her mother brought the recipe all the way from a chef she knew in Milano and he was the sweetest guy. He got married to Alessandra from Napoli…” She continued on like this for the whole ten minutes I looked for the strainer. And for the whole ten minutes, she stared at that spot on the wall.
But there was no strainer and frankly, not too many places to look. Her apartment was about the same size as mine – a one bed, one bath, only it was much less cluttered. The kitchen was small and crammed, so only one of us could be in there at a time. And most of the cabinets I opened had nothing in them. One had a few glasses, one had two plates, and the rest were empty. I wondered how she could cook anything with what she had, never mind the strainer. And that smell became unbearable after a short while, and when it did I finally said, “I’m sorry Ms. Quincy. I can’t seem to find it.”
“You and me both,” she sighed. “That’s quite alright. You’ve been lovely company. Which apartment do you live in?”
“Seventeen,” I said, halfway out the door.
“Seventeen. If I lose anything else, could I trouble you to help me again?”
“Sure, no problem,” I said, relieved to breathe the fresher air of the hall.
“Alright, thank you, Mick. I hope we have better luck next time. You’ve been so kind. Have a lovely evening.”
“Thanks, you too.” And the door clicked shut. I took a gasp of ‘fresh’ air in and when I managed to collect myself, a few aspects of her apartment began to trouble me. It was similar in layout to mine – but empty. So, so empty. How could anyone live like that? Most old women I know of have too much stuff, not too little. And then I remembered that kettle she talked about before opening the door – it wasn’t there. The stove was clean as a whistle and not even so much as a fork was left out. There was no sign anyone had used the kitchen that night if ever. And something else was missing, even more perplexing than the shrieking kettle: the other person. She was talking to someone before she opened that door, I know she was. But as far as I saw for the ten minutes I was in there, she lived alone. And then there was that black spot on the wall – not larger than a golf ball. She kept looking at it and studying it, but not in an “I-need-to-get-that-checked-out” way – she almost admired it. She smiled at it between sentences, held her heart over the nightgown, as if she found it…charming. I shivered at the thought, but eventually managed to shake it until I saw her again.
Over the next few weeks, I received a number of knocks on my door. Ms. Quincy seemed to remember which apartment I lived in without a problem, but could never get my name right. The first time she came over, she said she was missing her New Yorker magazine. We looked for it just as we did for the strainer – high and low all the while she told me about how long she was subscribed to the New Yorker, and how her late husband Gerald used to write for them. But we never found it. I asked her if she still paid for the subscription and she stopped with a shaky finger suspended in the air and thought for an awkwardly long time before declaring, “I don’t remember.”
A few nights later, Ms. Quincy said she lost her Aricept prescription: a common medication to treat Alzheimer’s. This time I found it, but only the empty orange bottle with the label shredded up in an animalistic manner. It was just beneath that black spot on the wall which I swear was growing larger. If it was only the size of a golf ball the first time, it was closer to that of a basketball when I found her pill bottle.
The next time she came over, Ms. Quincy was in tears. She told me she had just gone grocery shopping that morning but when she got back from physical therapy, all her food was missing. Indeed, her pantry and refrigerator were both empty aside from a year-expired box of rice. This was the first time I can remember knowing rice could expire, but what was funny was I couldn’t remember seeing the rice when I looked for the strainer. At the end of that short search, we concluded she hadn’t been to the food store at all. And as I left with that foul odor wrestling my nose, I caught a glimpse of that black spot…it was definitely larger. It couldn’t be measured by the size of any sports ball anymore, it was closer to the size of a small child – the rough shape of one too. It had to be water damage or something terrible to cause that kind of rot in the wall. I emailed our landlord that night for her but he never responded.
The next time Ms. Quincy showed up at my door, she was more panicked than ever. She was still wearing a nightgown, but no glasses this time. She was shaking – freezing almost – and her droopy eyes darted side-to-side as she spoke. “I – I lost my grandchildren,” she said.
“What do you mean, Ms. Quincy?”
“Where are your ears, Nathan? I lost my grandchildren,” she snapped. I’d never seen her so troubled.
“Were they visiting?”
“Yes, yes. My granddaughter Katie was over and her brother, Michael was in the other room playing with his trains. I was teaching her how to cook something – something…oh I can’t remember. And then they were gone. Please, please help me. I need to find them. Their parents will be so upset with me.”
I shut my door behind me and followed her next door. “Don’t worry, we’ll find them,” I told her. But how could she lose her grandchildren? I thought I was helping her gain some sort of peace of mind by ‘helping’ her look for these ‘missing items’, but it only seemed to be getting worse. She thought she was losing people now. I began to question how far was too far. Was I helping her, or just entertaining the musings of a deteriorating mind?
Again, we went through the motions and looked around, but once again there weren’t many places to look. I told her I could call her daughter to see if the kids were alright and she eventually agreed, but when I picked up her landline, the number didn’t dial. I still pretended to talk to her daughter, Annie, and get confirmation that the kids were alright in a one-way conversation with dead air. “Hi I am calling from Ms. Quincy’s phone. Yes, I’m her neighbor. We just wanted to check in to see how Katie and Michael are doing. They’re with you? Okay. Fantastic. Thank you. Thank you so much. Have a great night.”
“Great heavens, thank you. Thank you, so much,” Ms. Quincy said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
I put the phone back on the receiver, and just before I walked away, I noticed it wasn’t plugged in. And that black spot – that black spot was massive now. She couldn’t not see it…right? It overwhelmed the wall and bubbled in a few places. I cautiously poked at it and felt a wet gooey texture that I wiped off on my shirt and said, “Ms. Quincy?” No response. I stared at its colossal nature. It towered over me and seemed to lean in as it made its way up towards the ceiling. “I think you should get this spot checked out. It looks like it could be water damage or mold or something or –”
I turned around to see her standing with a straighter back than she usually did, making her about three inches taller. “I think you ought to leave now,” she said, holding the disconnected phone in her hand.
And so I did. And I never saw her again. No more late-night knocks on the door, and soon no more crying. A few weeks later, a couple movers came in and out of her apartment, carrying that brown leather couch. I asked them where they were taking it, and they told me to a dump since the woman had moved to a nursing home. They told me her dementia had gotten so bad, that her worst fears finally came true: she’d lost her independence.
And as I spoke with the movers, something crackled and then smashed into the floor inside the apartment, startling them enough to drop the couch in the hallway. I peered inside to see what all the commotion was about. At first I saw dust cascading over the floor, covering the spot of impact in a light haze. And when it cleared I realized which wall had collapsed: the one with the black spot. It finally gave way. Flecks of moldy blackened drywall covered the floor along with fragments of something white – stained with black mold, but still white. I looked back towards the opened wall to find where it had come from. I hoped what I saw was fake at first: some kind of Halloween gag. I’ve seen posts online about this kind of thing before. Someone would hide a plastic skeleton inside the drywall and scare the next tenant who opened the wall. But it wasn’t plastic: bits of flesh still hung from its wrists and its teeth were falling out and rotted around the hardened gums and maggots crawled through miniature holes in its pelvic bones and eye sockets. It nestled into the insulation like it was laying peacefully in an upright bed. Then its bottom jaw bone rocked and fell off, shattering against the wooden floor.
As the three of us stared on in horror, the drywall creaked again, then flaked some more. Soon, the rest of the wall collapsed and crashed against the floor followed by crackling and clattering and dust once again bellowing over the wreckage. The dust settled and my face went cold. I saw it all. The strainer, the magazines, a folding chair, a couple paintings, a box of old letters, the legs of a coffee table, pots and pans, and even a television: all falling from the moldy wall.
I stared at the jawless skull of that skeleton, still propped up inside the wall, and it seemed to stare back at me – it seemed to mock me. I don’t know how all of Ms. Quincy’s belongings ended up inside that wall, but the fact is they did. And I probably won’t ever know, but for some reason I’m sure that skeleton did. It didn’t just know – it did all those things too. I know it sounds crazy, but nothing can convince me it wasn’t torturing her all that time – praying on her feeble mind. Maybe she wasn’t as forgetful as she might have thought. In these old apartment buildings, some walls are thinner than others.
But I still wondered about her grandchildren. If everything else was in the wall, where were they? And just as I turned back toward my apartment, the drywall creaked one final time.