The man who knocked on my door last week asked me to turn down my music. I hadn’t seen him around before. This is not a big apartment building, nor is it the first time I’ve been asked to turn down my music, so I’ve seen the faces of everyone who lives here (I’m pretty damned sure). Furthermore, this building has one rickety old staircase up the center, which passes in front of every apartment door, meaning when someone hauls a couch up the stairs, we all know about it. Assuming we’re home, that is, and I was. I’m always home. (Thanks, Obama!)
I figured maybe he was visiting one of the neighbors, probably Molly upstairs. Molly dates a lot. She brings home different guys a lot. It’s not my cup of tea, but who am I to judge? Anyway, I assumed this guy was one of hers.
Most people, though, when they ask you to turn down your music, they make some kind of face. Maybe they look apologetic like, “I’m sorry my ears are so sensitive that I have to inconvenience you.” Or sometimes they look angry like they think I’m playing music just to piss them off. This guy, though! He said, “Would you turn down your music, please?” the same way you’d say, “I’d like a soy latte with an extra shot.” His tone was authoritative, gentlemanly even, and made me feel like some kind of gross creature who should be accustomed to taking orders.
“Nah,” I said, puffing my chest. I let my chin rise in feigned thoughtfulness and shook my head as though considering seriously whether turning down the music would be a possibility. “No, sorry, I can’t.”
And could you believe the fucker smiled at me? I don’t know what I thought he was going to do, but he smiled and walked away, and that pissed me off so much I had to turn my music up even more, and Mrs. Norton came knocking a few minutes later. I had to apologize to her. I didn’t know her baby was sleeping.
That afternoon, I went across the street to eat lunch and watch people. I was hoping to come up with a new story idea, but I got distracted thinking of ways to start a conversation with the barista. My attention had been wandering all day ever since that bastard knocked on my door. The music hadn’t even been that loud. And it was good. It was sunny outside, and I’d been sitting at my desk with just the perfect light streaming down on my page, and I was starting to get somewhere with this story when this gentlemanly fucker comes knocking like he’s got no taste. He had the face of a guy who humble-brags about how his marathon training is going. But if I knew anything about Molly, she’d be bored with him in a minute, and I’d never have to see him again.
I was gazing at the door when it opened and in he walked. His eyes, I swear, went directly to mine, and before proceeding to the counter, he smiled and tipped his imaginary hat at me. I watched him order something I couldn’t hear, receive it, and exit. As he passed the front window, his head turned sharply to shoot a grin straight at me.
I tried to refocus on my story, I tried people watching, I even tried to spin the guy into a character for a new story, but I was stymied. I called it quits for the day, hopped on my bike and rode to the park.
The next day, I got up, made coffee, turned on my music (a little quieter than the day before) and started writing. With my mind fresh from sleep, I had no trouble getting started. I wrote straight through till 2 p.m. before getting distracted by hunger. I locked my door and headed down the stairs, and I saw Molly coming in to the lobby as the new guy was walking out. He stood aside as she straight-armed her way through the door, then swiftly shimmied past her to exit the building without touching the door. Molly was absorbed in her phone and did not glance up at us.
At the sandwich shop, I took a seat by the window. I sat and pretended to write for a long time, occasionally jotting down notes about the people I observed but glancing up every time I sensed movement in the corners of my vision. It paid off. He returned an hour later, empty handed.
I snapped up my notebook and the remainders of my sandwich and jogged across the street in a way that probably did not quite pass as casual. I entered the door 15 feet behind him, and paused to check my mail in the lobby letting him get ahead of me on the stairs. I could hear his footsteps several flights ahead as I mounted the bottom step. He was still walking when I reached my door on the 3rd floor. I didn’t put the key in the lock until I heard him reach the top. A door opened, there were footsteps, and the door closed again. I went into my apartment and resumed work.
The next morning, I walked out into the stairwell and peeked over the edge, up and down the jagged leg of space with the skylight at the top. Feeling confident that no one was lounging outside their doors at 8 a.m., I began to walk up. It was a stupid thing to do. I didn’t think I was going to find anything. But at the very top of the stairs was a dusty landing, which was rarely used because there was no apartment door at the top. The path ended in drywall, and pinned to that was a piece of notebook paper with symbols scrawled across it. It was like a language a little kid would make up — all dots and squiggles. Some symbols were bigger than others, carved boldly into the paper with a ballpoint pen.
The next day and the next, I saw the man coming and going from the apartment building, nodding at people he passed on the way to this or that errand. When I passed him on the stairwell, I could feel his eyes boring into me, his smile growing wider, his cheeks more insistently jubilant. The harder he stared, the more I wanted to avoid his gaze.
Yesterday, I watched out the front window for him to come back, and when I knew he was coming up the stairs, I listened. His steps were slow, deliberate and loud. At each landing, he stepped firmly with one foot, then the other, and turned slowly. I counted the flights he must have risen, and only after I heard a door open and shut, I opened my door and counted. He’d risen 6 flights total, so he should’ve been at the top floor. Obviously, he’d faked the last flight because he must have known I was listening. He probably saw me sitting by the window when he came up the street. I went up to the 6th floor. Each floor had two doors (one on each side of the landing). Apartment 6A was the landlord’s, and apartment 6B had been empty I thought, but perhaps the creepy bastard had moved in without any furniture. Maybe he was some kind of sicko dope fiend. I’d be doing the whole building a favor if I could get him kicked out. I knocked on the sicko’s door. I knocked and knocked and knocked. It was starting to hurt my knuckles. I was going to keep on knocking all day if I had to, but a door opened behind me, and I heard the landlord’s voice.
“Smithson? You doing OK?”
I froze. How to explain this?
“Uhh,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets as though to hide the evidence of my insanity. “Sorry to be so loud, Mrs. Davis, I just, um. I been trying to talk to this guy who moved in here. He doesn’t really seem right to me, you know?”
Mrs. Davis furrowed her eyebrows at me. “There’s no new tenant.”
“Well then! How embarrassing,” I said. “Maybe one of Molly’s guys, then. Maybe I should mind my own business.”
When Mrs. Davis finally disappeared behind her own door again, I tiptoed up the last flight of stairs. There was a new note on the wall.