Thursday, July 09, 2009


I walked out to my laundry room today.

I opened the dividing door that closed out the laundry and garbage areas and saw a little, frail old lady carting things up and down the back stairs with another middle aged lady helping her.

I smiled politely and walked into the laundry to move my wash loads around. Part of me wondered if Paul was moving out. He had almost moved once before. I had just told my fiance' that I was going to ask the landlord if he had other properties available, too. Maybe it was fate. Paul could move out and we'd move in. A one flight moving day and a bigger space.

The old lady wandered into the laundry room carrying a plastic bucket with a load of bottles inside it. Her arms with withered and bruised. The thick glasses she wore made her eyes look huge. The white hair on her head was piled in a mild beehive. She was so tiny.

“Did you know Paul Thomas?” She smiled a sad little smile.

My mind ran over the upstairs neighbor Paul Thomas. How he would curse and wail as he went up and down the stairs due to leg and back pain. How he would smell of alcohol on some days and smile wide in a neighborly fashion and talk about the weather or the mail absently. The times where the other neighbors in the building had to call the paramedics because he was drinking himself to death slowly. How he disappeared for a few days and how this same woman – his mother, if I remembered correctly – came by to fill us all in on his fall, his hospital stay and the fact that he may not life to see the next month.

He had lived, however, and returned to the six flat building. Had retreated back into his lone existence.

He continued to prowl around the building cursing his pains and late taxis that were supposed to take him for check ups and grocery runs. Continued to scream and shout at all hours of the night when th drinking had gotten out of control yet again.

We'd taken to avoiding him all together. He was hard to manage and you never knew who you were going to get when interacting with him. Would it be the friendly man in pain, but still smiling and wishing you well? Or, would it be the angry man who smelled of sweat and booze?

I mustered a smile and pointed upstairs. “Yeah, yeah....Paul upstairs. Sure.” I nodded and my heart sank when I saw the tears well up in her eyes.

“Well, he....he died this morning.” She tried to smile.

“Oh.....oh man, I'm so sorry. Oh no....that's terrible.” I meant it. It was sad for her and I felt for her loss.

“Yeah....he was just....he had been drinking a lot. It really got out of hand.

The middle aged lady muttered, “Not eating...” from the stairs and placed a bag of recycling on one of the cans.

“Not eating, just drinking. And, he had the bad heart and wouldn't take his medication, you know.” She wiped at her eyes. “He was down at that market down the street – Tate's?”

“Right,” I whispered.

“He just fell down in front. Asked them to call him a cab to take him home.” She sighed. “And, he died this morning.”

“Man – what a shame. I'm really sorry for your loss.” I wanted to pat her arm or hug her, but held back.

“Well, at least it was quick for him.” Her arm shivered.

“Can I deal with the bucket and bag for you?” I didn't wait for an answer, slipping it from her hand. The bucket was light, but looked like it could pull her arm out at the shoulder – she was so slight.

“Thank you. Thanks.” She smiled a pretty, wide smile as I dropped the recycling into the can. “Thank you for being such a good friend to Paul.”

A knot formed in my stomach. “Of course. Of course.” Guilt washed over me. “Well, we're right here,” I said pointing around at our door. “I've been up for over a day, but please let me know if you need any help, ok? I'll be up for several hours. Really – it's not a problem.” I nodded.

“Thank you so much. Really.” She smiled and turned to head back upstairs. “We'll be in and out dealing with this for a while.”

“Oh, your bucket.” I handed it to her.

“Thanks. Thanks again.” She smiled and the tears started again. She managed to make it up the stairs, but I had a feeling of dread watching her do it. She looked like she was made of glass.

I turned and returned to my laundry. I heard her say something about me being nice and how Paul had such nice neighbors and I felt like shit.

I hadn't done much for Paul while he was alive. He lived alone and drank alone. I lived in the same building for years and never invited him over. I never offered to drive him to the store. To grab something for him if I was going down there. If it wasn't for his mother being there when he died, none of us would have known until the tell tail signs of death alerted us to his passing. And why? Because I thought he'd be a pain in the ass. I thought he'd call on me to help him all the time if I did it once.

It was fucked up.

I slide quarters into the dryer and started it after hanging some things on the line. I tossed the next load in the wash and started that going, then I slunk back to my apartment to think over what it means to be a good neighbor.

Hell – what it takes to be a good human being.

The door closed with a click.


Bonkers said...

Terrific essay, Malcolm. Honoring your neighbor's passing with honesty, but tenderness and self examination; we should all be so lucky.

Bonkers said...

"we should all be so lucky..." be remembered with such a crisp, honest bit of writing, I mean.

Samara said...

great writing...great read...true compassion.:)