Post Road Magazine #30

The Tapping in 1L

Alicia Schaeffer

Loretta thought she could—no—should live rent-free. She wasn't going to make good on a bit of overdue rent until her building's superintendent got rid of that tapping sound.

"It can't be the heat, Sammy," she said, standing over the super.

Sammy, kneeling on her apartment floor, obliged by withdrawing his head from the open vent.

This was in the single room in which she lived. Where she worked, too, teaching private music lessons in a corner she kept sectioned off with a rice paper screen divider.

"Remember, Sammy?" she said. "Those pipes aren't pushing your measly heat anymore. Remember, you said 'if you want the heat, you get the noise.' But the heat's not on anymore."

Sammy remained on his knees. With a shrug of his shoulders he said, "It's fixed."

Loretta slammed her foot. The weak floorboards rattled the base of her upright piano.

He piled his flashlight and screwdriver into a steel toolbox.

At every bang, click, and hum she begged him to come downstairs from his apartment on the top floor. He had been to her apartment ten times in less than eight months. And whenever he stepped inside, the two watched each other, waiting for a sound as the city shifted outside her street-facing window.

She stepped closer to his hunched body.

"You never hear anything. Never see anything. You're the g.d. Helen Keller of building maintenance," she said.

He waved a hand at her and stood up.

Her mouth opened, but she did not speak. Did he remember that her closet door still flung off the track? The lobby buzzer rang for days at a time then stopped working altogether. That this was no place to raise a child, if her life eventually led to that. Not that her life had led to that, yet. She'd felt the urge to have one, at least then she could say: I made something. The rest of it, what I really wanted to contribute to the world, didn't quite set right, wasn't good enough that anyone wanted it to exist. But, hey, world, you get joy out of seeing this kid smile, play his first recital, dance on stage, give your legs a hug. If she had a kid, she thought, he'd grow up and it would be his burden to put something into this world, something people would want. A kid, she thought—the thoughts tumbling around her mind without reaching her voice—is our last gasp at redemption.

On the other side of the wall, Sammy's grown son, Ron, kept his hands at his sides. Ron hid half his body inside the wall. His head, arms, and chest barely fit, sandwiched in a sliver of space behind Loretta's bed. The rest of Ron's body, from the belted waist of his jeans down to his sneakers, balanced on a rusted icebox in the building's basement. He heard the metal latches on his dad's ancient Union Chest toolbox, the ring of building keys jingling at his dad's waist, and Loretta's pleas, muffled yet drilling through the thin wall. Then came a sudden bang and his enclosure quaked. A powdery breath of plaster fell on Ron's nose. A silence followed, and he assumed his dad had left. He tried to shake off the dust but the space was too cramped for more than a muscle twitch.

Alone in her apartment, Loretta sat on the bench in front of her piano. She closed her eyes. In a tiny yolk of lamplight, she sat in an emptiness of her own making, never touching the keys. The upright partially blocked her only window, through which the goings-on outside came into focus. Chipmunk hiccups, a car buckling into a pothole.

A knock jerked her out of the ritual. Then a succession of taps clawed across the room. When it stopped, she heard only the lamplight's thin, ragged buzzing. But another tap shuddered from her wall. Another thump, twitch, and beat—a pulsating force flocking over her like desire clouding over sight. Loretta opened her eyes and stood up from the piano bench. She watched silence tick across the dust, floating higher and higher out of reach.

Clumps of insulation hung in tatters, corroded by vermin and neglect. Bending his elbow, Ron closed his fist and rapped his knuckles against the inner surface of the wall. Splinters peeling off a wall panel nicked the thin skin under his forearm.

He stopped knocking and heard the soles of Loretta's piano bench rub against the wooden floor. He tapped again. Inside his plaster womb, the taps echoed in short burps, like frog ribbits.

In Loretta's studio, the knocking bloated to the size of her room. An inexhaustible beating assaulting her solitude. Her collection of read and re-read books, stacked dopily on top of one another to various heights along her studio's walls became the bound paper rungs of a ladder her eyes climbed. Once her closest allies in life, the tales had transported her into paranormal romances and biochemically-wrought dystopias, now they did nothing to distract her from the noise. Nor did they help her locate its source. She watched each book spine hoping one might show a tremor from the vibration and give away the precise spot from where the noise originated. The books sat still.

She turned on the television. Clicked off the lamp.

Through the din of nightly news, Ron recognized the sighs of Loretta's mattress, and imagined the bed's cushions holding her in places he could only long to. A gridlock of clangs and creaking and he decided she was settling near her iron bed frame. He rested his fingertips against the crumbly inner surface of the wall and kept them there. He thought about how she must look resting on the other side of the wall.

While walking in and out of the building, she layered herself; her fleshy peaks usually concealed behind the folds of ruffled tops. He felt drawn to the unknown of her body, her thick legs shielded by skirts that fanned out like an umbrella. Her clothing was a collage of pink, ice cream green, and candy purple. She walked through the neighborhood like a cupcake, or rather a stack of cupcakes. He wished to someday lie at the base of her bed, to open his mouth, and swallow the morsels that would naturally undo themselves from her cupcake tiers.

Loretta curled on top of her comforter, folding her knees into her chest. She closed her eyes. Flashes of TV blue and yellow streaked against her eyelids.

"I need you. I neeeeed you. Make it stop," Sammy said in a high-pitched voice.

He stood beside the kitchen table, waiting for breakfast. He imitated the Loon, as they called her.

His wife, Carol, nudged poaching eggs to roll over in a pot of boiling water. She glanced at him, then looked back down at the stove. "Funny," she said.

Sammy stopped waving his hands above his head. He stopped his eyes from blinking and blinking in imitation. His theatrics failed to dissuade his wife's suspicions about the Loon's intentions. For weeks now, she'd been accusing Sammy of making it up, the complaints, the phantom noise, to be alone with the woman.

He leaned on the back of a chair. "Where's the boy?" he asked.

Carol dove a fork into a slice of raw ham. She lifted the meat and laid it in a hot pan. "Sleeping, where else?"

Sammy knew his son had come in late last night. He had felt the wind in the room change as Ron walked through their railroad apartment. "Maybe he was up all night partying. Got himself some friends."

"Funny," Carol said.

On the opposite end of the hallway that connected the rooms of their apartment, a thin curtain hung in place of a door. Through it, the smell of morning cut into Ron's bedroom. He imagined the egg whites stiffening and pig skin caramelizing.

He sat up and took off his shirt, which was speckled with filaments dredged out of the first floor wall. He crumpled the shirt under his bed and changed into a cleaner one.

Recently hitting his nineteenth birthday, Ron continued to half-ass his way through maintenance jobs his dad threw his way. Mostly, though, he slept in or listened to Loretta through her wall; occasionally he passed time talking to the cashiers at the deli up the street. As a kid, he'd found access to the first floor apartment, but had little use for it, until Loretta had moved in.

Ron's mom's laughter shot through the apartment like an exclamation. He pushed aside a corner of the curtain. He saw his father's back. It was bare. His mom's arm curved around Sammy's torso like a lock of Medusa's hair. Ron watched his mom's hand reach up to the back of his dad's neck, and her fingers gently scratch the base of his head.

Ron transferred from the crosstown to the uptown line. He stood near the bus' back door with his head down, not needing to count the stops. He'd know when the bus got close to the museum.

Walking through bright halls of half bodies—muscular warriors and round breasts—he moved with force through the thin crowds. There wasn't much time. He'd waited until early evening, when the rooms were quiet and the schoolchildren gone.

In the gallery on the second floor, he sat on the museum floor and touched, with his stare only, a sculpture of an old lady. He had first seen the sculpture in middle school, during a class trip. It might have been the unblemished corners that amazed him at first. The old woman was intact, from the scarf wrapped over her hair down to her stone slippers.

The gallery was not empty, so he closed his eyes to sound out the surrounding chatter. But he had to open them, of course, to see the unchipped curves of the sculpture's veined skin. He turned an ear toward the noise and saw a group of adults, two men and two women, lined up in front of a bronze cupid. They spoke in a language other than English, and their hands poked and threshed at the air between one another. Pigeons on a telephone line, he thought. He collected their movements and pieced together each gesture to create a version of their conversation, like watching foreign television without subtitles.

"Museum's closing in five minutes," a guard whispered to the group.

The guard lifted his chin up at Ron.

Ron stood. He stepped closer to the statue. His cheeks warmed, not from exertion, but by something inside of him he'd be embarrassed for others to see. He took another step, planting both feet side by side in front of the statue. The heat on his skin intensified and tickled. His fingers hovered above the old lady.

He let his finger drop toward her knee and brush by, barely touching the cool surface. He smelled his mother's cooking on each heaving breath he exhaled.

A click sparked in his ear. Ron cocked his head to find the guard poised beside him. The guard asked him to make his way out.

Loretta had re-read the entire book. She checked the time. Nearly two hours had passed since she'd plucked the novel from among the paperbacks stacked up her walls. How had she come across such luck, such silence?

Loretta replaced the paperback and sat at her piano. The keylid was down and her hands rested on its smooth lacquered surface. Her doorbell would ring soon, she knew. She looked out the window, saw her neighbors drifting through the mild spring evening, taking their time. And she spotted beyond them, beyond the window and steel bars, her super, Sammy, across the street. It was nearing dark, and he walked back and forth over a small stretch of sidewalk. Near his feet, a portable radio and a six-pack of beer.

She watched Sammy smoke a cigarette in quick drags. His head leaning down to meet the filter. Behind him, the evening clouds darkened the rusted metal fence of the park's small baseball diamond. Sammy continued to pace and smoke, paying no mind as the field lamps lit. Within the frame of her view Sammy's son appeared. He stood on the sidewalk and stared at his father. His father stared back. Then the son picked up the portable radio, and the two men walked into the park together, toward the baseball diamonds.

"It's in the wrist," Sammy called to his son. Ron might learn. It was a miracle the boy had agreed to follow him across the street to the field. Now it seemed anything was possible, even his son mastering a simple pitch.

A portable radio sounded out the emptiness of the decaying park. When Sammy had found the stereo on their curb, its tape player was jammed up with a mangled cassette and the antennae needed to be replaced. After tuning the necessary parts, Sammy had it all: music, ball, and a pack of beers.

"Aim at my shoulder," he called out.

Meanwhile, Loretta watched as her super and his teenage son played catch. Their behavior looked stilted and posed, as if each were a different species: bear and kangaroo or penguin and wolf forced together by a circus or theme park.

Ron threw the baseball up instead of toward his dad. The ball spun high above Ron's head and fell into his hand. He continued to throw and catch with himself.

"Pitch it at me," Sammy yelled. "Don't look at my face this time. Aim for my shoulder. And keep your wrist loose."

Ron threw the ball up again, caught it. He looked at his father's face.

For a moment, Loretta lost sight of them. The neighborhood's slow-moving homeless man lumbered by, carrying his hefty-sized black bags of reekiness, his sour odor sliming into her ground floor apartment. It was the first time she'd seen him walk by in months. He must have relocated during the winter.

"How about we bowl with it?" Ron asked, and he knelt down and rolled the baseball towards his dad.

"Come on, Ron. Just fucking try," Sammy said. The ball wobbled over discarded scratch off cards. Sammy fought the temptation to pick up the scratch offs and check their luck. Instead, he picked up the ball and chucked it back at his son.

Ron let the ball land in the distance behind him. Then he sat on the dirt in protest.

Watching their interaction, Loretta felt less compelled to consider parenthood. At thirty-five, she still believed in a future with a husband and children, but in reality, she didn't even know another woman she could call her best friend. She liked people, just not enough to be with them.

Her buzzer rang.

Ron sat on the building's stoop. He lit a menthol. He'd stolen it from his dad's pack. He held the cigarette between his fingertips and pictured all the tiny movements his dad made. Sammy's inhales were so quick Ron was never sure if his dad took in smoke at all. His whole life he'd been watching his dad smoke in this amusing way. It was as if right at the moment Sammy put the cigarette to his lips he realized he had something important to say and the smoking would have to wait. Ron put the filter to his mouth and took a deep breath. He felt tobacco and tar bite the moisture out of his throat. He threw the cigarette at the curb.

Standing on the icebox in the basement, he slid inside the wall. In the small space, the cigarette odor climbed up from his shirt. He held his breath, but a cough barreled up from his chest. He drummed his knuckles on the wall sooner than he had planned to in order to hide his wheezing.

When the cough passed he ceased knocking. He stiffened when he heard her voice. No matter how many nights he'd spent chaperoning her, he always felt a trickling of surprise at the first sound she made.

The rhythm and tone of her murmuring fluctuated, as if she were in discomfort. Ron stood still and listened. The sounds of her suffering grew. He suddenly imagined an attacker inside her apartment. He considered jumping up the stairs, breaking open her apartment door, and saving her.

A cry came loudly. Or a moan. He pictured her on the floor, bleeding from a hurt that she might have inflicted on herself.

Then another voice came through the wall. In the first split second Ron thought a dog had growled. His old BB gun sat in one of the boxes in the basement. If he could tell for sure that Loretta was in danger, that a robber or a dog held her against her will, he'd knock over all the boxes and grab it and run to her.

But he listened and, for a very long minute, received silence.

He knocked again, harder than he had ever before. He scraped his forearm on the insulation. He pounded as much as he could. A pair of voices met his eavesdropping. Their sound grew, bellowing over the calls of his fists. The voices formed into a woman's laughter and a moaning, not of a dog, but of a man. Their pitches crystallized into the familiar sounds of Loretta and Ron's dad.

Then came an unyielding truth that broke open the deepest vault of Ron's pain.

Out. He wanted out. Out from the wall. And he inched back in the inch he had. He steadied himself down, lowering his leg off the icebox.

He didn't think what to do next. His body made decisions without his conscious knowledge. He found himself on the street in front of their apartment building.

Spinning in the heart, he walked and walked. Pain invaded his gut and mind. The possibility of someone seeing this failure on his face made his fingers tremble, so he tried not to imagine his father and Loretta's joint soundmaking.

The uneasiness in him had to be expelled before he could go home. He couldn't take these feelings upstairs to his bedroom. They would seep into the fixtures. He'd be forced to look upon the memory of this night forever, alive in the carpet and paint. He followed his feet.

Around dawn his eyes opened. He awoke on the top step of his building's stoop, curled against the iron railing, the bridge of his nose resting on his hands and knees. He thought of his mom who might already be awake, spooning out clumps of ground coffee. Not long ago, she had asked to set him up on a date. There was the daughter of a woman she gossiped with at Bingo. He had said maybe. And when she'd brought home a piece of paper with the daughter's phone number on it, he'd told her he was too busy preparing an application for the nearby community college. "Why not a real college?" she had asked. He hadn't thought on it much then.

Ron scratched at dashes of dried blood on his arm. Someday, he thought. An alien color crept into the sky. He knew he would. He'd go to a real college, get an office job. He'd live in his own apartment with a fish tank.

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