The Woman Upstairs by Michail Mulvey

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I can hear her, the woman upstairs. Especially on a Friday or Saturday night when she’s entertaining a guest. The two, the woman and her guest, trade small talk. Over drinks, most likely. I only catch a line here and there, especially if I’m watching TV. Eventually the small talk dies out and the entertaining goes horizontal – I can tell by the rhythmic squeaking of her sofa-bed.

I’ve met her, this woman upstairs. When I borrow an iron one night she tells me her name is Liz and she works at The Aetna. She’s young, soft-spoken, sweet. And blond. And buxom. Vulnerable with a capital ‘V.’ Judging by the number and variety of her ‘guests,’ I’m guessing she’s a betweener – between meaningful relationships.

She smiles when I borrow stuff. Like an iron and a vacuum and a . . . the kind of stuff I leave behind with my ex-wife. When I borrow her vacuum she asks if I’d like a beer.

“Thanks,” I reply. “Maybe next time.”

“Sure,” she says, smiling, but with a hint of disappointment in her eyes and her voice.

Tempting. But I know where that one beer will lead, most likely.

In my mid-30’s, recently detached, and living in a complex of efficiencies and condos on the edge of town. I’m renting an efficiency: living room, kitchenette, bathroom, closet. Stains in the carpet. Stains on the walls. Dead bug in the sink. My life in storage boxes stacked in a corner.

My building is four floors of box-like apartments with paper-thin walls, peopled by an assortment of betweeners like me. Between marriages. Between relationships. Between jobs. Somewhere in life between point A and point B.

I don’t know the guy downstairs. Only seen him at the mailbox a couple of times. We trade small smiles and quick nods. Seems like a nice guy. Older. Gray hair. Drives a Buick. Wears a cardigan. I can hear him, sometimes. On Saturday nights, usually. He leads a small prayer group. Like monks, they chant. The Rosary. Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and other chants I vaguely remember. I used to know them all. By heart. The prayers the nuns at Saint John’s taught me. Long ago.

He’s not loud, the guy downstairs. Neither of these two neighbors are, really. Like I said, the woman upstairs is sweet. And soft-spoken. But the guy next door, he lives loud. He’s an entertainer, too. I can hear him through the wall. Not sure if he’s a betweener, though. Never met him. By his accent and his music, I’m guessing he’s from down south somewhere. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. Just loud. Luckily he’s not around that often. I think he drives a semi. I’ve seen one parked the next lot over. If it’s his, that would explain the long gaps between periods of shouting. And it would make him a betweener, too.

The apartment on the other side just went vacant. Never met this guy either. He was quiet, for the most part. Just quietly disappears one day. Another betweener moving from point A to point B, probably.

Went out with her once, the woman across the hall. Thin, brunette, glasses. She warned me she could be difficult. That was an understatement.

It’s late. I’m lounging on the couch in my sweats, watching TV, snacking from a big bag of Lay’s Potato Chips. I’m watching Love Boat re-runs. Painted, perfectly-coiffed and bejeweled older married women complaining about their inattentive husbands. Pouty young things in skimpy bikinis pose by the pool, whining about their inattentive boyfriends. Only Isaac the bartender seems truly happy. Floating irony.

Downstairs the chanting begins:

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . .”

I turn up the volume on my TV.

” . . . blessed art thou among women . . .”

It’s quiet upstairs. Maybe she’s out. Liz is her name. Then I hear the familiar squeak of her sofa-bed. Not much small talk tonight. She and her guest get right down to business. He’s playing her a bedspring sonata. Andante.

” . . . pray for us sinners . . .”

Muffled moans through the ceiling.

” . . . now and at the hour of our death . . .”

I turn up the volume on my TV again.

Julie, cruise director on The Love Boat, is having problems with one of the passengers. As usual.

Maybe I should listen to some music. Where are my headphones? Probably left them at my ex-wife’s house. Or maybe they’re in one of those boxes stacked in the corner.

“Our Father who art in Heaven . . .”

I should head out. Cromwell Inn? Cornerstones? Wall-to-wall suits and secretaries. Or La Boca – the Love Boat on shore leave. Cervezas and nachos. Tequila and loud music.

” . . . hallowed be Thy name . . .”

More muffled moans. From upstairs. The tempo moves from andante to allegro.

” . . . Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done . . . ”

It stops, suddenly. The moans and the sonata.

” . . . on earth as it is in heaven . . .”

I get up, turn off the TV, take a quick shower, put on pants, clean shirt, a clean jacket and leave.

There’s a guy in the elevator. He’s flushed, slightly disheveled. He straightens his tie, runs a hand through his damp hair. He looks at me, smirks, gives me a knowing nod. I stare back but don’t smile.

He needs his face smashed against a wall.

I’ll pray for her. The woman upstairs. Liz is her name.

 

Michail Mulvey

 

Banner photograph: By Yinan Chen (www.goodfreephotos.com (gallery, image)) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

6 thoughts on “The Woman Upstairs by Michail Mulvey

  1. Michail, I enjoyed reading this because it seemed to me like a silent movie, since the characterizations were clear and visual The second to last line I think spoils the impact as the final line sufficiently captures his feelings for Liz. Of course we are left to determine for ourselves what Liz really does and ask: is our character really so naive?

    Regards, James.

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  2. This is really good, Michail. The voice is distinctive and well maintained, and you convey plenty of powerful emotion through glorious understatement. All the best. Vic.

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  3. A slice of life – really well observed and characters who are recognisable and sympathetic in spite of their flaws, or maybe because of them – what more can you ask. I really enjoyed reading this.

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  4. “My life in storage boxes.” What a great line! What a neat story! Send more. I love your writing. Best wishes, June

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  5. I’m a big fan of slice of life pieces where the storyteller swoops in on a few characters for a while and then swoops out again leaving a bunch of questions. This was really well done and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Cheers, Nik

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  6. Hi Michail, there is a wonderful simplicity in your style of writing. The ending leaves the reader wondering about their own perceived ideas on his initial attitude towards her. This emphasises all our thoughts on the complexities of attraction.
    I enjoyed this and look forward to reading more of your submissions.
    Hugh

    Like

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