The man in the adjacent apartment used to listen to sitcoms all night long. The noise pollution of weak storylines and canned laughter bled through the prefabricated walls like noxious gas into a death chamber. I didn’t sleep for days. I have always suffered from severe insomnia. The tenant’s name was Pharat and he was from Istanbul. I knocked on his door once and asked him to turn the television down a few notches. He gave me a morose look and puffed on the cigarette dangling under his thick moustache.
“Yes, yes, I will turn it down,” he said in a heavy Turkish accent.
The noise continued for about a week. I became convinced he was trying to get rid of me. My days became miserable and groggy and I considered breaking into his apartment to seal his cable outlet with calk.
Once I finally put in a noise complaint, everything stopped. I didn’t hear anything for a few days. It was wonderful catching up on my sleep. On a Saturday afternoon, however, I saw the door to his apartment was open and Chester the maintenance man was vacuuming the bare carpet. Pharat’s things were gone.
“Is he gone for good?” I asked.
“Afraid so,” he said. Chester was smiling. “I didn’t much care for him. Strange man. Thought he owned everything.”
I caught up on my sleep and continued to live my life as usual until a young girl named Cynthia moved in. Cynthia was a college student and enjoyed having loud sex with her a revolving cast of equally loud young men. It wasn’t quite as annoying as Pharat having the sitcoms on at full blast, but overtime I started losing sleep again to the blare of her nightly escapades. She liked to knock on my door and borrow things as well. I never did see my broom again once she was finally gone.
I had a good rapport with my landlady: Mrs. Gonzalez. She sent me home with tinfoil trays of hot tamales or huevos rancheros sometimes when I stopped by to pay rent or just talk. She always said I was her favorite tenant. I think I reminded her of her son, if she ever had one. The Hispanic children in the neighborhood spread rumors that she was an Aztec witch. They’d dare each other to sneak into the apartment complex on Halloween. Chester normally kicked them out.
I knocked on her door with the check in hand.
“Steven,” she said. “You look awful.”
“That’s what my boss said.” I had bags under my bloodshot eyes and a permanent headache that congealed into a nasty scowl I couldn’t help. “Here’s the rent.”
“What’s going on, Steven?”
“Of course, he violated his lease. I still can’t find the deadbeat.”
“Well, the college student next door isn’t much quieter,” I said. I felt like a crotchety old man having to complain about my neighbors, but I was getting tired of the 4 a.m. hallucinations and dosing off for brief intervals at work.
“I’ll tell her to be quieter.”
“I appreciate it.”
“I was looking at putting sound proof barriers into the walls but the cost of installation is ridiculous.”
“Honestly, I think the walls are too thin for a sound proof barrier.”
Cynthia became quieter and didn’t renew her lease after a few months. Once again the apartment was empty, and I lived in general peace. The family below me had a rambunctious Dalmatian, but, unfortunately, the dog drowned after getting tangled in the tarpaulin covering the pool. I was the one who found it and pulled it from the water. It was difficult watching the children cry as they realized that Lucky wasn’t coming back.
“I figure he was chasing after a possum. They scavenge in the dumpsters ’round here,” their father said. He was probably right. I often saw the raggedy little demons as they hung upside down from tree limbs by their naked, pink tails or scampered across the concrete like giant, mutant rats. The South was infested with them.
The day after Saint Patrick’s Day, three hard knocks hit my front door and rousted me from the depths of my hangover. It was Chester.
“What’s going on?”
“There’s a leak coming from your place.”
“No way,” I said. “Show me.”
He stepped into my apartment with his leather utility belt on. It looked heavy and uncomfortable. “There’s a dark sludge leaking out through the Belmonts’ bathroom ceiling. Smells like hell. I hope to God it’s not the plumbing.”
We checked the pipes underneath my sink and did a preliminary check around the toilet. There was nothing leaking through the floor.
“You know I’m not exactly above the Belmonts,” I said.
“They’re apartment is bigger than mine.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Could the leak be coming from the next apartment over?”
Chester stroked his beard. “Let’s take a look.”
We stepped out onto the balcony and he searched his enormous ring of keys. The door opened with a long creak and we stepped into the barren foyer. There were stains of every color peppering the better part of the rug. Chester flipped the switch but the lights had been disabled, naturally. It was morning but the apartment was still fairly dark even with the front door open. He turned his flashlight on and we headed down the short hallway into the bathroom. There was something sinister about a room illuminated only by a flashlight. Sometimes total obscurity looks more inviting than the tunnel vision of a single fluorescent bulb. Chester set the bulb down on the ground and lay inside the cabinet to check the sink pipes.
“All in order here.”
I took the flashlight and looked around the toilet. “It doesn’t look like anything is leaking,” I said.
He checked the tub. It was dry as a bone.
I heard something in the living room. It was the voice of a man, a high and jovial cadence.
“What the hell is that?” said Chester.
“It’s a TV.”
The living room was empty but the sound of a television was coming through the walls. “My TV must be on,” I said. I walked back to my room and shut it off.
Chester was able to patch the Belmonts’ ceiling after the leak abruptly stopped. A couple of weeks went by and a new tenant moved into the “problem apartment” as I had come to call it. He was a guy around my age who played guitar in the evenings. Inevitably, his practice sessions started taking all night long and once again I found myself losing sleep. I slammed my fist against his door at 3 in the morning and threatened to have him evicted. I had finally reached that point of no return. I was a cranky old man now, a cranky old man thirty years before my time.
“I’m a professional musician, man,” he yelled back. He unplugged the Fender that time but his tunes continued the next night possibly just to spite me. Once again, I made the journey to Mrs. Gonzalez. She didn’t appear surprised to see me.
“Is it the knew guy?”
“What else would it be?”
“I’ll talk to him,” she said.
The apartment was empty the following week. It could not have been a coincidence. As soon as I found out, I raced down to Mrs. Gonzalez’s apartment. The door was already open. I walked into the kitchen where she sat at the table in her flower-patterned apron, filling the corn husks with polenta.
“You startled me, Steven. What’s going on?”
“Every time I complain about a tenant, they’re gone a few days later.”
“I take the comfort of my reliable residents seriously, Steven. I tell deadbeats to shape up when they’re a problem. Normally they just leave. It’s how they refrain from paying. People hop from place to place you know.”
“It can’t be a coincidence,” I said.
“The real coincidence is why you keep getting noisy neighbors,” she said. “You should be thankful I’m looking out for you. You’re one of my favorite residents.”
I laughed a little. “I guess I shouldn’t be complaining.”
“Of course not. I’ll knock on your door sometime tonight with a fresh batch of tamales.”
I walked upstairs and thought about everything: Pharat’s television, the dog‘s drowning, Cynthia’s dates, the leak from the empty apartment, and the guitarists midnight practice sessions. I was probably over thinking things. Even so, was it so bad to have a guardian angel making sure I was comfortable where I lived? A lot of people my age were stuck with awful roommates. I was lucky and I needed to appreciate being lucky. I went back to my room and sat down on my couch thinking about the tamales I would eat for dinner. I didn’t need to know what kind of skeletons Mrs. Gonzalez had in her closet, under the floorboards of unused apartments or hidden inside her cooking. What I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me, and I certainly wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.