He had a nose to scare children. It was half a large punctured pear, red and pockmarked. He was bald but for a grayish sprinkling along the sides and back of his head: almost, but not quite, monkish. He had the brow of a sperm whale. He could often be heard mumbling to himself. He was not underweight. He was considered strange.
But he did have the kindest eyes—doglike, wet.
He lived three flights up in the elevator-less building on the corner of Madison and Hoover. It was a five-story apartment house owned by ghosts and managed by equally invisible and unreachable proxy. Who, in turn, worked through other heartless proxy when rents were due or overdue or so overdue that evictions took place.
His building was a friendless one. Of twenty tenants only two were close. Only five knew each other by name. All in all, his building housed a collection of strangers who had only two things in common: the payee on their rent checks and they all considered him strange.
His fingers were clean, pink sausages. His lips were near blue but quite full. Most of the time he smelled of soap.
He puffed after the first flight of stairs, he had to stop and collect his breath on the second landing, and he was all but spent by the time he reached his brown apartment door where the bronze letters 3A (which he polished now and then) greeted him. He wore a vest and always kept the apartment key in its left hand pocket, attached to a thin but strong silver chain. He always knew where to find the key as he always wore the vest. He never locked himself out.
He rarely saw his neighbors. Occasionally he would hear a door slam and hear feet scrape across the dirty tile floor of his landing, and sometimes he would lean up against his door to press a squinting eye to the spy hole. What he mostly saw were backs or tops of heads proceed down the stairway leaving him embarrassed for having intruded on their owners’ privacy.
He cooked his own meals except for Fridays when he ate one large dinner serving of roast beef and two baked potatoes at Zimmy’s Restaurant between seven and eight regardless of the weather. He over-tipped.
“How was the roast tonight?”
“Oh, thanks. Wonderful, thanks,” he’d answer and smile at Cindy, the waitress his age but not of his planet. His voice was weak, feminine. He did not look at her, but somewhere to her right, taking her in peripherally. Eye to eye would be confrontational and not very kind.
He did not own a television set. The radio was his next best friend. Silence was his best friend. He spent hours every day in his silent living room reclined in a large, beige arm chair where he leaned his head against the darker than beige head rest, greasy from years of listening, wrapping the silence around him like an old, loved blanket. Safe, listening.
Listening to the city outside—to the coughing of heat pipes inside.
To the rush of water as showers were taken here and toilets were flushed there (which always embarrassed him, both from a sense of propriety and from his own visits being ordeals).
To movements upstairs and below by large and small feet.
To muffled conversations, to fights and other violence.
To love-making both tender and brutal (which did not embarrass him for he was not exactly sure what was taking place).
To television programs, near and distant.
To buses breaking, cars moving, street arguments.
To the discussions of birds.
To occasional and late singing as some drunken tenant returned home from a night out.
To doorbells—though never his own.
At first he was not really sure. Had he actually heard it? A something that had sounded like “help” but so faint that he could not make out where it had come from, if indeed it had come from anywhere. He wrapped the silence around him tighter and listened very hard but nothing. And when he did not hear it again he decided it had been from the television next door, or perhaps from the set upstairs where he could now hear a commercial.
Yes, that must have been it.
Then he heard the whisper again, and there was no doubt this time. “Help,” it said, faint, strained. “Help,” a little louder now. He could tell that it came from the apartment next door. “Help.” And it was not the television for he could hear it too, and the commercial—or another commercial—was still playing. Then there were no more helps, only the television again.
Now the couple downstairs turned on their television set too and somewhere else a toilet flushed. Most nights he could hear at least three, sometimes as many as four or five different televisions sets, depending on how loud they were. He could hear three now.
Although he listened for it very hard the faint call for help from the apartment next door did not return.
And did not return.
And as the evening wore on and dinners were cooked and eaten, and as showers were taken, and toilets flushed, and more television programs were enjoyed he forgot about it.
The building was settling down for the night when he heard it again. “Help. Help me.” Certain now: yes, definitely from the apartment next door. He’d seen her a few times, descending or climbing the stairs. Met her once on the landing, when she had scowled at him. She was an older, black woman. Religious. He could sometimes hear her pray in the mornings. She rarely left her apartment.
Her television set was still on. Same channel. He could tell. He knew how to tell channels. And there it was again. “Help.” Like a little rodent. “Help.” But he was tired now and fell asleep in his arm chair.
When he awoke the following morning, he’d forgotten about it. There were other sounds now. Cars starting up as the traffic lights changed to green at the corner, delivery trucks honking at the shop keepers, the city waking up. Breakfasts being cooked in the building, morning toilets taken. Also, today was Wednesday, shopping day. Much-to-do day.
Something odd, though. Something out of place. No, he had not yet remembered the little whisper for help, but the out-of-place was coming from the same direction. Her television set was turned on. She never watched television in the morning. And tuned to ABC, still. Same as last night. He recognized the newscaster, definitely ABC. At that moment he both remembered and heard the faint “help.”
So simultaneous were the two “helps” that he had the sensation of remembering it outside his head. Then again, the faint “help.” Just a whisper, but close to his wall.
He closed his eyes the better to hear and while listening he tried to imagine why the old woman would be saying this at seven in the morning. Whenever he had seen her she had looked strong. Quarrelsome and strong. What would she be saying that for? And there she said it again, “help.”
Now that he was listening for it he heard it quite clearly, despite her television. But it was Wednesday and he had to get ready for his weekly grocery shopping. There was a shower to be taken, cheeks to shave, so much to do. He was no spring chicken, these things took time these days, better get going. And as he got going he put the whisper out of his mind, further and further away and soon forgotten altogether.
Until late that night. But then he wasn’t sure whether it was memory or coming from the other side of the wall. It was so faint it was almost not there. Frankly, he wasn’t sure. He listened again, really listened, but could not hear anything, just the television set. No helps.
Someone started up a shower—a bit late for a shower, he thought, but then again, there was no too-late-for-a-shower in the rental agreements. Too late for loud music, yes, but not for showers.
There was an argument somewhere on the fifth floor. He knew who that would be; the only ones who could be heard straight on through the fourth floor. He pitied his upstairs neighbors, but not too much.
No more helps, though; only her television.
It was morning again. This time he remembered right away. He sat down in his armchair and listened very hard. No helps; only her television. Since there no chores to do today he could fall asleep again in his chair, and that’s exactly what he did.
He stirred around lunch time. His stomach woke him up. He remembered right away again, for the television was still on, and still tuned to ABC. He looked around, at the wall between him and the quarrelsome woman. Wondering, listening. No helps.
To make sure, he worked himself to his feet then lumbered into the kitchen where he found a tall glass. He brought it back into the living room and pressed its top against the wall between them. He put his ear against the bottom of the glass. The television was suddenly much louder. The news, he knew the day-time anchor. Definitely ABC. And there, another “help.” It was such a small word. Why did she keep saying that? Who could possibly hear a word so faint? Without a glass, like this, that is.
His ear started to hurt against the bottom of the glass, but he listened for it some more and there it was again. But now not only his ear was hurting, but his legs and feet as well, and he was very hungry. He needed to cook. He was glad it was Thursday because Thursday is soup lunch day and soups cook quickly. Not so much standing in the kitchen.
He listened for it again that afternoon. Once he thought he could hear her, but then, even with the glass against the wall, there was nothing. Just the television set. He felt relieved. He fell asleep early, in his chair.
It was the wailing that woke him. He looked at the clock on the wall. Seven-thirty. It was light outside, and traffic—morning, then. Friday.
The ambulance stopped outside, the wailing really loud and then very quiet, then not at all, and then he heard people come running up the stairs. He struggled up and over to the front door. To the spy hole. A black woman he recognized as his neighbor’s cleaning woman, clearly hysterical, stood at the top of the stairs screaming something at the men climbing them.
Curiosity then got the better of him and he undid the four well-oiled locks and ventured a thin ajar. Through the crack he could now see the cleaning woman hold the door open for the paramedics.
He could also see neighbors from upstairs, and downstairs. Gawking. They had turned off her television set, finally. Probably the hysterical cleaning woman.
He saw them carry her out. The cleaning woman remained hysterical. Sobbing, slobbering, dabbing her eyes with what looked like a towel. They had his neighbor all covered up with a gray plastic sheet. All of her. Her face too. Nobody in a hurry anymore.
The cleaning lady was still hysterical.
Someone whom he didn’t recognize, but who looked like a factory hand, or a small-time crook, said to no one in particular, but quite clearly, as if meant specifically for him, “The fat geezer probably heard something.”
He slowly pulled the door shut, re-engaged his four well-oiled locks, returned to the living room and sat down in his chair. He had trouble breathing. The old, black, quarrelsome neighbor-woman was dead. He realized that now.
His doorbell rang at ten-forty-two that morning. There was a uniformed policeman outside who smelled loudly of Old Spice.
“I’m Officer Anderson from the police department. I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about Mrs. Stower, your neighbor.”
The officer had a mustache that twitched when he spoke, yellow teeth and a deep voice. A kid from the second floor was looking up at him through the railing. He didn’t like children that much.
“Yes. A terrible thing.”
“Can I come in?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
He stepped back to let the officer in, and they both entered the living room. The officer looked around and then at him.
“She starved to death,” said the officer.
He didn’t answer.
“She fell and broke her hip about a week ago. This paralyzed her. She could not get up. But that’s not what killed her. She starved to death.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Terrible, terrible.”
“She would have survived he not her cleaning woman had a week off, so she didn’t come last Friday.”
The officer stepped up to directly face him. “Did you not hear anything? No noise? Did she not ask for help?”
“No, I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Terrible, terrible.”
“Not a thing?” said the officer. “I must say that this surprises me.”
“No, officer. Not a thing.”
The officer shook his head and stepped back. “Oh, well. We were just curious.”
He returned to the living room after locking the door behind the officer, and eased himself down into his armchair. And there he sat, very still for a long time. Absolutely still.
It grew on him from below, this knowledge, like he was slowly lowered into warm water: starved to death. The woman had starved to death.
And just alongside this grew another knowledge: he had done it, hadn’t he? He had heard her, hadn’t he? He had heard her starve to death. Her helps fainter and fainter as her life ran out. His doing.
He hadn’t meant to do this, of course not. Someone else, whose job it was to find her, would find her; not his job to look after old, black women, was it? But these excuses didn’t work, even though they beat their heads bloody against the knowledge that he had done this, he had starved this woman to death.
And the more he thought about it the worse he felt. He couldn’t say why he hadn’t done anything to help her.
Starved to death.
And it was too late to set things right. They had carried her down the stairs, all dead under that plastic blanket.
Starved to death.
Then his father entered the room from some distant memory and he held up the old bible, the old eye-for-an-eye bible. And his father said one word, over and over: atonement.
And that was the only word—the only thing in the world—that made any sense to him.
At five that afternoon he was so hungry that he had a hard time listening. At ten that night his hunger was a constant hum.
Since Cindy had the evening off, there was no one there to notice that he did not have dinner at Zimmy’s Restaurant that Friday.
Cindy worked again the following Friday and knew something was out of place, or missing. Could feel it but could not put her finger on it.
The same thing happened the Friday after that. Something was missing, something big, but the evening was quite busy and she never got around to putting her finger on anything. It was not until the following Tuesday that she finally had the small epiphany. Pondering, she explained to herself that he must be ill, or out of town, or something, although this was the first time in her six years at Zimmy’s that he had not been there on Friday at precisely seven o’clock for his dinner. And this was now two Fridays running. Some emergency somewhere, family, something.
When he didn’t show up the Friday following she went to the police. She had a hard time convincing them that something was wrong, so it took them another two days to start looking and three more days to finally track him down.
They found him only one day dead. He had been a very fat man. There had been layers and layers of stored sustenance to draw from, to keep him alive, so it had taken him twenty-six days to atone.