After six years living in Boston I finally bought my own place, a first floor condo located on the west side of Southie. The building is old and needs some exterior work, but the unit itself is newly refinished: an eleven hundred square-foot split level with two bedrooms, a brand new kitchen and energy-efficient HVAC. Given the high demand in South Boston and the recent drop in interest rates, I felt it was a sound investment.
The second floor tenants came down a few days ago to say hello. They are a nice couple in their early 30s. He works in the IT department at Liberty Mutual; she is a cellist who teaches music to under-privileged kids. I heard her playing “Moonlight Sonata” the other night while I painted my bathroom trim. It was quite relaxing.
I have not yet met the third floor resident. All I know is his name—Danny Pellegrini—and his email address, and that he apparently shovels the front steps and sidewalk when it snows (says the previous owner). I have lived here for almost two weeks and I have not seen or heard from him once.
I sent him an email, just to say hello and introduce myself. It has now been five days since I sent that email, and I have not heard anything back.
My friend Tony, a plumber, helped me install a new water heater the other day. The old one was from 2002, and I didn’t want any surprises, what with winter coming and all. We had to shut off the building’s main water line before making the switch, so I went upstairs to alert my neighbors.
Steve and Kimberly, the second floor tenants, were watching a movie and in no need of running water, at least for the next ten minutes. I had a brief conversation with Steve in the doorway about the neighborhood, all the luxury condos going up around us. He seems like a normal, down-to-earth guy.
On my way up to the third floor I smelled the sticky, pungent odor of weed. It became so intense that I got light-headed and held onto the railing to steady myself. I let out a deep breath and moved to the door when I heard a British-sounding voice from inside the unit:
“WHY MUST YOU CONSTANTLY SIT THERE? WHY? PLEASE EXPLAIN TO ME, AND TO EVERYBODY ELSE IN THIS CHAMBER, THE BENEFIT OF YOU SITTING IN THAT PRECISE SPOT, EVERY BLOODY DAY. NOW GO ON, IF YOU WILL. WE ANXIOUSLY AWAIT YOUR RESPONSE.”
I waited anxiously, too. There was no response, so I decided to knock. As I raised my knuckle to the door I heard a screech, like the sound of a schoolgirl screaming for her favorite teen idol. The screech segued into a high-pitched, maniacal cackle.
I backpedaled slowly across the landing and hurried downstairs to the cellar.
“We good?” Tony asked, kneeling by the water heater, wrench in hand.
“Let’s just do it,” I said. “Quickly.”
A week later I left a bottle of pinot noir with a note attached to it in front of Mr. Pellegrini’s door, next to the welcome matt. The note read:
Hey neighbor, it’s Nick, the new owner on the first floor. Just wanted to introduce myself. Come down and say hi when you have a few minutes. I’m usually home weeknights.
Two days went by and I heard nothing. Maybe he’s out of town, I thought, so I walked up to the third floor to have a look. When I got to the landing I heard loud music from inside, either Motley Crue or Def Leppard or Ratt or one of those fucking bands that the gearheads listened to in junior high. I also heard someone talking, possibly on the phone. I also smelled weed again. It was eleven o’clock, Saturday morning. I looked down at the welcome matt, which was a bathroom rug spattered with gobs of petrified toothpaste.
The wine bottle was gone.
* * * *
“Now, is it true that the folks involved with this project took a pay cut in order to get it off the ground? Was that because the studio didn’t want to take a chance with such controversial, uh, subject matter?” Letterman asked me. He leaned back in his chair and smoothed out his tie.
“You know, Dave, it’s always tragic when movie stars have to take a pay cut.” (Studio audience laughs; crew laughs; Dave does his hee-hee laugh.) “But yes, nobody wanted to touch this film. Of course it helps when you have people like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg in your corner. And then once DiCaprio was attached, that was when the picture got fast-tracked.”
“How did, uh, the whole DiCaprio-playing-you thing come about?”
I was about to tell the story of how Leo DiCaprio flew to Boston to meet with me, how we spent six hours driving around my hometown discussing the role, when I heard a knock at my door. A knock! After four years of living in this apartment, somebody picks now to knock on my door.
My first thought: who could possibly be knocking? My second thought: whoever it is, is he/she recording me? How much has he/she heard? The DiCaprio thing obviously hasn’t happened yet, but I just revealed to Dave Letterman the gist of my idea: a three-hour musical about bowel disease. It has never been done before, and I’ll be damned if someone beats me to it.
I pieced together a series of incidents, starting with an email from Jerry, the original owner of the building, mentioning something about the first floor unit going on the market. That was weeks ago. Since then, other clues: the sign reading CENTURY 21 in the first floor window. The carpenter’s van, parked across the street for nearly a month. The unfamiliar voices that trailed around the unit on Saturday afternoons, accompanied by heavy, echoing footsteps. The young couple, standing by the front steps as though waiting for someone, who then gave me a funny look for not letting them into the building. I felt exhilarated as the logic formed a circle and closed in around me, my deductive powers spinning before my eyes like the walls of a centrifuge, all leading to one final piece of the puzzle.
I unlocked my file cabinet drawer, where I keep valuables like my checkbook, my Telly Savalis autographed cocktail napkin, a Box of Evil, my Graffix bong and the only surviving copy of my unfinished manifesto, “Pellegrini in the Modern Age”. From the drawer I retrieved the wine bottle that mysteriously appeared at my door two days ago. I examined it, tipping it upside down, holding it in the sunlight, searching for a clue I may have overlooked. And that’s when I found a note, hidden in a folded piece of paper, tied to the bottle’s neck—a place usually reserved for price tags, now the vessel for a communiqué.
I pulled out my magnifying glass and read the note.
There is a new person living on the first floor of this building. His name is Nick, and he wants me to come down and say hello.
Or so he wants me to believe.
* * * *
Today is December 18th. I have lived here for six weeks and I still have not met, or even seen, the man upstairs. I have a feeling, however, that he sees me.
Last Tuesday night. As I entered the building I saw the silhouette of a figure, standing in the third floor window. I did a double take, and the figure was gone.
Thursday morning. I lied in bed while my girlfriend got ready in the bathroom. She asked if I had met the third floor guy yet and I said no, I’d given up, and who cares since he’s a total freakshow. I rolled over on my side and noticed a smell…that skunky, burnt smell of weed, as though it rolled in like a mist at the very mention of the man upstairs.
“Babe, do you smell that?”
She came out of the bathroom, towel drying her hair. “No. Smell what?”
“Nothing,” I said, bringing the comforter up to my nose to take a whiff.
Friday evening. I opened the door that leads downstairs to the laundry room and a cat leaped out at me. I shrieked and threw my laundry basket into the air, sending my socks and underwear everywhere. The cat ran to the base of the stairwell, turned and reared back onto its hind legs and hissed at me, its long pink tongue curling out between its bottom fangs.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell are you?” I said, pressed back against the wall.
The cat hissed again, then scurried up the stairs.
And then there is the singing, always when I’m alone in my condo. Usually golden oldies like “Surfer Girl” or “Runaway”, sung in a wooden, almost spoken word, British accent. I’ll be on my couch reading or in the kitchen making something to eat and I hear When the night. Has come. And the land…is dark. And the moon. Is the only. Light we shall see. I woke from a nap yesterday, laying awake in my dark bedroom, when I heard Bum….Bum….Bum… It sounded close, as though it reverberated off the bedroom walls. Then: I have no gifts to bring pa-rump-a-bum-bum!
I got dressed and went up to the second floor to talk to Kimberly and Steve, get their take on the man upstairs. As I climbed the stairs it occurred to me that I had not heard Kimberly’s lovely cello for a couple weeks. When I got to their door I felt a sickness in my stomach; their coat rack and welcome matt were gone. I pressed my ear against the door and heard nothing, not even the hum of a refrigerator. I knocked twice, waited, and got no reply.
Instead I heard a screechy mew. I looked up and saw the cat, staring down at me from behind the third floor railing, its face peeking out between two balusters.
“What have you done to them?” I said. The cat disappeared.
And then I heard laughter.
* * * *
“They’re laughing at us again, Boot,” I said. I picked up my cat and carried her to Safe Zone II: the corner of my bedroom, in between my synthesizer and my Indiana Jones cardboard standee. I sat on the floor and cradled the cat, rocking her back and forth. “We’re safe here, Boot. It will pass. It always does.”
I waited for more laughter. Or the singing. Instead I heard a knock at the door.
“Go away,” I said, mentally. I closed my eyes and visualized the words emanating from my brain, in italic, floating through my condo and seizing the intruder’s neck. I also visualized two exclamation points, launching them separately, like air support.
Another knock. Finally there were footsteps, descending the stairwell. I let out a sigh of relief.
Perhaps it's time to explain all this.
Three years ago I unwittingly granted a ghost permission to enter this building, and since then it has haunted my clothes. Not all of my clothes, just my Z Cavaricci jeans, my green sweater vest, two pairs of tube socks and an orange B.U.M Equipment shirt.
When I first moved in, there was an old fellow named Joe who lived next door. He was a small man in visibly poor health, always standing in front of his wooden fence, smoking cigarettes and spitting. He had a wife who never left their living room. I caught glimpses of her through the window, an old frail woman, as frail as Joe, sitting upright in a chair, staring straight ahead at what I imagine was a television. Now that I think about it, though, maybe it was something else she stared at.
Joe and I exchanged pleasantries whenever I left for work in the morning and then again when I came home in the evening. I’d say, “How we doing, Joe?” and he’d reply with “Fuckin good!” and then spit on the sidewalk. One summer night I came home and asked how he was and he said “Fuckin terrible!”, and then spit on the sidewalk.
“Oh yeah? What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My fuckin wife died,” he said.
I grieved with him for a few moments, then we talked. “You work in advertising, right?” he asked. I told him yes, I did. “You got copy machines over there?” he asked. I told him we did indeed. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a driver’s license. “This is my wife’s license,” he said. “I don’t got no pictures of her, and with her being dead n’ all, I prolly oughtta hang a fuckin picture of her on the wall. So I’s thinkin you could enlarge her driver’s license picture to something bigger, and maybe I could hang that on the wall, right next to our calendar.”
He handed me the license. “Sure, Joe,” I said. I looked down at it. His wife’s face appeared flattened, her lips and mouth caved inward, as though she had forgotten her dentures. I looked back up at Joe. “Consider it done.” He spat on the ground, most of the phlegm clinging to his stubbly chin.
The next day I photocopied the license, enlarging it by 400%. I even spray-mounted the color copy onto a foam core backing to give it some depth. When I came home that night Joe wasn’t standing out front smoking, like he usually was, so I went upstairs to my condo. I removed the license and the photocopy from my bag, placed them on my kitchen table, ate dinner and went to sleep. When I walked into the kitchen the next morning, both the license and the photocopy were gone.
I searched my condo for two hours. They were gone. As if they never even existed.
Finally I went outside to tell Joe. Again he was absent from his usual post, so I knocked on his door. I heard him shout from inside: “Fuckin come in already!” I let myself in. Joe was sitting on his couch, smoking a cigarette, hooked up to dialysis. The living room smelled like urine. “There’s something wrong with my balls,” he said. “They keep getting bigger. I think they’re gonna fuckin explode.”
I sat on the chair across from him. “Um, listen Joe, I don’t know how to say this.” I told him about the license and the picture, how they simply vanished. “I’m so sorry,” I said. He dropped his head in his hands and started to cry.
Finally he looked up at me. Snot slicked down from his nose and into his mouth. “Just fuckin leave, you worthless fuckin asshole.”
I nodded, got up and left.
That night I did a load of laundry. When I took the clothes from the dryer I noticed something else in there with them, something small and non-apparel. At first I thought I left the tags on my Z Cavariccis, but since I got them in ninth grade I quickly dismissed that theory. I reached into the warm dryer and grabbed the object. It was the driver's license.
I ran back to Joe’s and knocked on the door. There was no answer. The next morning there was an ambulance in front of his house. I never saw Joe again. I can only assume that his balls exploded, most likely from excessive grief.
Immediately I gathered up the clothes I had washed and placed them in a box, along with the driver’s license and a vial of holy water my mom got for me from her trip to Spain with the Red Hat Society. I labeled the box EVIL, placed it in my file cabinet and locked it.
Why not just throw the box away, you ask? I’ve thought about this ad nauseam. And my answer is quite simple: Evil will always exist. One cannot stop its natural flow. One can only hope to contain it.
For the last three years it has been laughter and singing. I can imagine worse. Much worse.
* * * *
December 31st, 2009. I finally met the man upstairs. I had a small housewarming/New Year’s Eve party that night. A few straggling guests arrived around ten, and when I opened the front door to let them in a Domino’s delivery guy stood there with them, holding a medium pepperoni, ordered, presumably, by my upstairs neighbor. I had him trapped.
I entertained my guests in the front hall, taking their coats and asking them to remove their shoes, while the Domino’s guy waited. Finally Mr. Pellegrini appeared on the stairwell, wearing a bathrobe and pajamas, holding that fucking cat in his hand like he was a James Bond villain. My guests and I got quiet and watched as he made his descent.
“Hey neighbor,” I said, cheerfully. “Happy New Year. I’m Nick. I’ve been living here for, oh, two months now. I wasn’t sure if you even existed.”
He paid for the pizza. The Domino’s guy said good night and left.
I introduced my friends. “This is Lindsay, Ariana and Lauren. Ladies, meet Danny. The man upstairs.”
He looked us over with a glazed, distant look in his eyes. “Hello,” he said.
“What an adorable cat,” Ariana said. She reached out to pet the thing and Danny pulled it back, turning it away from us as if to shield it.
“Danny, why don’t you come in and join the party for a minute.” He shook his head. “No, really,” I said, taking him by the shoulder and leading him into my unit. “I insist.”
I introduced him, one by one, to all my finance and banking friends, my hi-tech sales friends, and my lawyer friends. The men all wore suits and the women wore elegant dresses. They twirled martini glasses and crossed their legs. They tilted their heads back when they laughed. They nibbled on hors d’ oeuvres from pinched fingertips. “This is my neighbor, Danny,” I’d say, gesturing to the asshole standing next to me in a bathrobe and slippers, with a pizza in one hand and a cat in the other.
The next morning I woke up to a back rub from my girlfriend. A light snow fell outside. I heard the TV from the living room and smelled coffee. It was perfect.
“That was mean, what you did to your neighbor last night,” she said, leaning forward, next to my ear.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “I was just having fun. The guy creeps me out.”
She kissed my back, between the shoulder blades. “I know, honey. But it’s bad karma.”
I agreed, just so she’d continue with the back rub.
After our morning sex I got dressed. We needed milk and I wanted to get a newspaper. I put on my coat, opened the door and noticed something on the welcome matt, something that looked like a local restaurant flyer. I bent down and picked it up.
It was a picture of an elderly woman’s face, mounted on some kind of foam backing. The image was grainy, slightly out of focus. I couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying.
I tossed it aside and headed out to the store. I'll throw it in the trash when I get back.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
Best of the Fool: