The evening had unfolded on an unusually bright note: the last vestige of vernal sunlight finally peeked through a weeklong filter of clogging rain and mist, and a nightingale could be heard intoning lush melismatic arias from atop the neighboring telephone pole. Maddie wanted so much to feel enlivened by the promise of spring, but something in her gut gnawed at her, silently telescoping a sense of volatile unease that was encircling the approach of nightfall.
Like an electric turbo engine, Maddie felt her nerves being propelled inexorably forward, always forward, by an irrepressible thrust of energy. It was much like a huge jet in midair having achieved maximum cruising speed: the rumble was always there, the continual churning of fuel into driving force, propelling energy which tremored and hummed in a mighty outflux of power. She twitched her restless limbs in bed causing the rusty springs of the rutted mattress to groan in a plangent dirge, then craned her ears to register any unusual sounds that might be the cause of her disquietude. But in the dead silence of the night, everybody around her seemed to be sleeping soundly: her neighbors next door, their tenants upstairs including Armin the kindly Egyptian, her sister Winnie in the adjoining room, and the young Romanian exchange student Nicolae in the small cubicle above the porch. Everyone was peacefully, heavily asleep, and the sounds of her sister’s voracious snoring as if she were eating the very air around her from exuberant greed, were on usual occasions, reassuring to her.
But now, she was suffering what she called one of her singing nerve episodes, in which all her neuronal synapses, like a thousand-member tabernacle choir, were fired up at attention and shouting their hearts out with ear-splitting strains of Hosanna, Hallelujah!, while in a mute monody which paled in comparison and could barely be heard above the din, her lips kept murmuring, Lord have mercy! This, too, will pass. Hour after hour, as her skittish constitution crackled and pealed with the strains of dreaded expectation, she checked the luminous dial on her alarm clock, pulled the foam plugs out of her ear canal to ascertain the dead silence above, and, feeling that her bed sheets were about to ignite in flames with the electrical charges her body was releasing, finally got up and, with stockinged feet, padded to the kitchen. Peering through the window curtains, she noted with envy that all the world was slumbering and fast asleep. Even the nightingale had ceased its trilling and had gone off to bed somewhere to retire for the night.
She shuffled to the table, pulled out her deck of well-worn playing cards, spread out a few losing rounds of solitaire, gave up, swallowed a high dose sleeping pill, and returned to her bedroom hopeful that within the hour she would be forcibly drugged into a state of refreshing, long-anticipated blankness. And waited.
She waited above all for that good-for-nothing tenant, old Clyde, to come home. But night after night, she never knew when his whim would overcome him and lead him back to his upstairs room, situated directly above hers, too annoyingly close for comfort. What was the old man doing anyway at this obscene, God-forsaken hour? Maddie waited with jittery, thrumming nerves until—at last!—at three o’clock she heard the heavy glass-paneled front door lock into place with a thud, detected the ashy stench of stale cigarette smoke oozing through the flimsy walls, and listened to the crescendo of steady lumbering footsteps springing on the creaking wooden staircase. She listened with a pulsing heart as they approached the hallway just above her, heard the door unlock, and felt the clumsy footsteps plant themselves firmly in front of their owner’s bed, directly aligned with her own below.
Then it began. The devil only knew what he was hoarding up there, Maddie moaned to herself. In the pitch darkness, the noise always seemed louder and appeared to echo tremendously in the void-like silence. She remembered what a dentist once told her, that cold sores always felt larger than they actually were, as if the cavern of one’s mouth acted as an echo chamber increasing the offending pimple in girth and malignancy until it took on gigantic disproportionate dimensions of its own. First came the rocking squeaks of the old floorboard, always in the same place, always measured, like a raft swaying back and forth with the shifting weight of its hulking passenger. A dish would clatter, a closet door would bang. A brief respite, several minutes of pregnant, deceptive quietude. And then, in the black vacuum, something sounding very much like a combative army boot would suddenly, savagely, drop on the floor—her ceiling—to jolt her with a fiendish charge of electricity. A hasty succession of footsteps around the room would follow, back and forth, creaking rhythmically.
That was enough, Maddie thought. She would try not to overreact, but it had been a long time since she had last lost her temper. And it always had the same effect on her, raising her blood pressure, causing her heart to palpitate and murmur with silent pizzicato shrieks, her temples to pound like a percussive gong. But now it was time again to show old Clyde her displeasure.
Clenching a monkey wrench that she kept on hand for the purpose, and with the white heat of angry gorge overcoming her, she aimed at the radiator pipe and gave it such a series of steady thwacks that the whole floor shook ferociously from the vibration of cold hard metal clanging upon metal. The hush of night suddenly took on a new gravid depth. And as her blood vessels nearly burst from the shock, she heard a jagged hawk of spittle, a rough clearing of throat, then a surprised raspy voice bellow through the ensuing silence, Go—To—Hell!
Oh, God, I am in hell, Maddie moaned as each incisive word punched into her skull with a ham-fisted blow. She climbed into bed glassy-eyed and quaking like a leaf, her nerves tied into fragile bundles of broken twigs. I have to get rid of him. Yes, that scumbag must be bum-rushed out of my house! There must be a way. He must go. Or maybe I should just go. Might be nice to live in a different country. I must talk to Armin and Nicolae. Maybe they can help. And how could Winnie possibly sleep through all this uproar? she wondered.
As on other such occasions, now that the ordeal was definitively over and the last person had retired for the night, she nestled herself under her blanket, listened to the soft concluding croaking of the mattress coils, and waited for sleep and the dawning of hope with the approach of a new spring day.