SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 28, 2019

Stranger on the Ground Floor

 

Before moving to the southern reaches of Brooklyn, neither my wife nor I—she was in the East Village, I was in Park Slope—paid much attention to who or what our neighbors were. We never learned their names, we never learned anything about them. Why bother, right? Probably assholes anyway. Down here, though, we’re given little choice in the matter, especially within the building. The way the three apartments are set up, there’s no getting around knowing the neighbors. In some cases getting to know them a little too well. You run into them coming in and going out, you run into them in the tiny laundry room, and whenever the heat goes off you’re forced to consult and conspire to present the landlord with a united front. Plus, the way the acoustics work here, you can hear pretty much everything going on in the other apartments at any given time.

            That said, for the past several years we’ve considered ourselves quite lucky. For all the people who’ve passed through the ground floor apartment, we’ve had no major issues with any of them. Here’s a quick recap.

            Bill and Mimi, whom we’d known long before I moved into The Bunker downstairs, had been living on the ground floor for years before packing up and moving to another state in 2015. A few weeks later they were replaced by a young couple in their early thirties. They had a two-year-old daughter, two enormous pit bulls, and a couple of cats. We liked them a bunch. She was a goth chick who was studying oncology, while he had a checkered past but had no regrets, told great stories and wanted to be a writer. Both were very funny and smart. A year after moving in, they decided the place was too expensive, so they moved out of the city as well. We were sorry to see them go.

            Mere days after they left, the ground floor apartment was occupied by a young Australian woman and a gay East Indian friend of hers. Both had recently graduated from Columbia’s film school. Both were very pleasant and bright, and they knew their film history. Well, a couple of months after moving in, she had to return to Australia to clear up some green card issues, and her friend started bringing in roommates to help cover the rent. Don’t recall how many people came and went, but there was an armload. Most only stayed a week or two. Still, for as many roommates as flowed through that apartment, there was no trouble. They tended to be quiet, and so far as we know nothing was stolen or set ablaze.

            When the Indian decided he wanted to move a bit closer to his job—down here we’re pretty goddamn far from everything—he was replaced by a Middle Eastern couple he’d known at Columbia.

            Again in their early thirties I’d guess, the husband was another aspiring filmmaker, his wife was a classical singer and media consultant of some sort, and both were deeply steeped in Arabic culture. Very friendly, very polite, but contrary to the general stereotype, they were a couple of party animals. This didn’t bother us in the least, in fact we found it funny and oddly charming, but some of the next door neighbors took issue with their whooping it up in the backyard until three or four in the morning. I guess we might have found it less charming if we slept on that side of the apartment, but as things stood we were happy to see someone taking advantage of the back yard.

            To help cover the rent, they brought in a chirpy bubblehead who’d recently arrived from Texas. Nothing against her, really. She was just a little . . . chirpy. Then she brought in a friend of hers who was equally chirpy and bubble-headed, but whatever. So now there were four of them down there on the ground floor.

            Okay, now, here’s where things start getting strange and a little creepy.

            About a month ago, the Middle Eastern couple vanished. They simply weren’t down there anymore. They’d mentioned in passing earlier that they were considering a trip back home for a visit, but there was nothing definite about it. We were on friendly enough terms, I thought, that they’d say something about leaving, but no, they were just gone. It took me a while to notice I hadn’t heard them or run into them or smelled dinner cooking in their place in a few weeks.

            That left the two chirpy ones. They were on a fairly regular schedule, I heard them coming and going, and they were in the habit of stumbling home loud and drunk and chirpy at three or four in the morning on weekends. That was fine, they were young, and that’s what they should be doing.

            Then at some point last week it occurred to me I hadn’t heard either of them in several days, either. But there was definitely someone down there on the ground floor. He was male, that much I could tell. I heard him retching violently one morning, which is what tipped me off someone was down there. The following day—this was Wednesday—I noticed the TV. Whoever was down there had taken to blasting it twenty-four hours a day. I went down to have the day’s first smoke at four-thirty in the morning, he was blasting the TV. I dragged that night’s empties out some fifteen hours later, he was still blasting the TV. That was no big deal, except he was clearly watching really crappy contemporary movies. And the two chirpy girls were definitely no longer around.

            Not only did we never hear anyone move out or move in, I never once heard this guy leave the apartment. As mentioned, given the acoustics in this place, we can clearly hear whenever any apartment door opens or closes, and days passed without the ground floor apartment door opening once. So where the hell had the chirpy bubbleheads gone, and who was this guy? I’m not so damned neighborly that I was about to go downstairs and knock on the door to find out. He wants to hide away and watch stupid comic book movies REALLY FUCKING LOUD all day and all night, it’s none of my business. He can do whatever he wants down there, though the weirdness of the whole situation did tug at me a little. One day he was suddenly there, is all. Funny how over these past years I’d shifted from having no desire at all to know my neighbors to being intensely curious about who was living below me, though not curious enough to do anything about it.

            But after returning home from one stupid errand or another around noon one Monday, five or six days after noticing his presence, I paused in the entry hall. Was that another movie I was hearing? Something about the sound quality was different.

            Nope, that wasn’t a movie, that was a man screaming obscenities. It sounded like he was on the phone in his kitchen screaming at whoever was on the other end. Apart from the “FUCK YOU!” That erupted after every few syllables, I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying, and wasn’t even sure if he was speaking English. Again, it was entertaining and curious, and certainly better than the TV blaring godawful movies, but none of my business. I shrugged, went upstairs and got back to work.

            When I popped back down for a smoke later, he was still at it. I remember thinking that screaming for that long non-stop must take some stamina. Or crack, one of the two.

            When Morgan got home from work that afternoon, he was still bellowing.

            “Yeah,” I told her as she paused a moment to listen. “He’s been at it a good chunk of the day now.”

            Neither of us had the slightest clue who this guy was, where he’d come from, where everyone else down there had gone, or if we had reason to be concerned. “What the hell is he doing down there?” Soon enough we slipped into wild speculation. Had he killed the others? Was he now squatting down there among their blood-spattered belongings? Had one of the chirpy bubbleheads made the mistake of picking him up at a bar and bringing him home, only to learn the hard way he had no intention of leaving? Would he be moving upstairs next?

            Again we shrugged it off. It’s not like we’d never screamed at someone over the phone. Maybe not for a straight four or five hours, no, but still. In all likelihood the whole situation was perfectly innocent, and he was just having a bad day. None of our business.

            But an hour later, while doing something in the other room, Morgan heard the noise leaking up through the floor. She came and told me she was afraid something really bad was happening down there. Now there were two voices, one male and one female. I wasn’t fully convinced of that at first, thinking the other voice Morgan was hearing was actually the two year old in the basement. Then I heard the woman, whoever she was, shriek in pain.

            I moved into the short hallway outside our apartment. The sound was clearer out there, and I just wanted to confirm what we thought we were hearing. He was still yelling, though I still couldn’t decipher anything beyond the obscenities. The woman wasn’t saying anything coherent, but every few seconds she let out a sharp scream.

            Well, that’s no good, no, but I was in no condition to go downstairs and knock on the door in hopes of breaking up a domestic dispute. Besides, I thought, there were other possible explanations. Maybe they were into the whole S & M scene. That would be simple enough. Also, there’d been a lot of film people down there in recent years, so maybe they were rehearsing a scene from a horror movie.

            A couple of years back a friend of mine was shooting a series of videos which he planned to post on YouTube. In one of them his character gets into a screaming fight with his wife and daughter. The friend was shooting all this in his basement, and hadn’t bothered to give a heads-up to the tenant who was renting a room from them at the time. Well, hearing the screaming that seemed to go on and on and on as my friend shot different takes, the concerned tenant called 911. After the shoot was finished, my friend and his wife came upstairs only to run into two cops coming down the hall toward them. It quickly became nothing but a funny story. So there’s that.

            Or maybe he really was torturing and killing this woman down there on the first floor.

            I dismissed the “scene rehearsal” idea. It had gone on too long, and there’d been no breaks when both of them started giggling. That left either S & M or torture and murder. I stepped back into the apartment.

            “Yeah,” I said. “Sounds pretty bad.”

            So what the hell to do? If we did nothing, we might end up with a corpse in the ground floor apartment, and would have to answer all those accusatory questions from the cops and the New York Post about why we didn’t do anything to stop it. We wouldn’t even be able to offer the vaguest description of the perp, given he’d never left the apartment. We agreed that knocking on the door and shouting, “Hey! Keep it down in there!” Was probably not the way to go. That left calling the cops. My wife thought it was the only alternative. I had never, ever called the cops on anyone before. Never even threatened to do any such thing. It’s simply not in my makeup. Call the cops and they’d likely end up shooting us instead. At the very least they’d shoot the people in the apartment below us, meaning we’d still be left with at least one corpse down there.

            Meanwhile, the woman downstairs, whoever she was, was still screaming intermittently.

            Well, Christ. Reluctantly I picked up the phone, and even more reluctantly explained the situation to the operator. I hated passing along the address. The whole thing left me feeling dirty.

            “Can you describe them?” The operator asked.

            Not wanting to get into the tangled web of all the levels involved with that question, from my blindness to the behavior of the mysterious stranger up to this point, I simply said, “No.”

            With no lights and no siren, the NYPD cruiser pulled up in front of the house ten minutes later. Two officers got out, and I heard the doorbell chime on the first floor. Much to my amazement, a moment later I heard the apartment door open and someone go to the front door. The door opened, but I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. I braced myself for the volley of gunshots. They never materialized.

            Less than two minutes later, the cops headed back to their car. They’d never come inside.

            Downstairs, whoever answered the door returned to the apartment and closed the door. After that, all was quiet.

            That much was a relief, unless the woman was dead already and the stranger had given the cops a convincing cock and bull story. As I sat there afterward I was left with a much worse problem. Not only was I now the asshole who’d ratted out the neighbors like some bitter old spinster for what turned out to be nothing at all, I had to live there with them, pass by their door several times a day, and be here alone all day with a potential psychopath at the bottom of the stairs. The same psycho who in all likelihood knows full well I’m the one who dropped a dime.

            Later that evening Morgan heard the ground floor apartment door open and someone leave the building. She never heard them come back.

            When I went downstairs for a smoke at four-thirty the next morning, the TV was silent. I didn’t hear anyone moving around. That was good news, I thought, unless it meant we were going to start smelling that corpse in the next couple of days.

            Later that morning as I returned from the store and let myself into the building, the door to the ground floor apartment opened, and I froze. This was it, the moment I got a shiv in the ribs for being a stinking rat.

            “Hi Jim!” A chirpy bubblehead chirped. “Did I startle you?”

            “A little, yeah. But good to see you.”

            “It’s chilly outside!” She chirped further as she passed me on her way to the front door. “Stay warm, Jim!”

            Then she was gone. If she was the one we were hearing the day before, she seemed no worse for wear, and listening closely for the rest of the day I could hear no evidence that the psychopathic stranger was still down there.

            I will likely never know what the hell was taking place on the ground floor that Monday. That wouldn’t be so bad, except I will always feel the sting of having turned snitch over whatever it was.

 

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