The house in which I
live is divided into two sections—
the front half, which is again divided
into three furnished apartments with a little store tacked on the front—
and the rear, in which there are two unfurnished apartments; one upstairs
occupied by a Mrs. Carstairs, and one downstairs which is mine. I've never been really comfortable here.
The living room is too dark, the bedroom too small, and the room
where I work so long and narrow that nothing much will fit into it except a
desk and chair, some books, and a small easel where I amuse myself by
painting something from time to time.
Nevertheless, I continue to stay on—
inertia keeps me here.
I have not been well for a while and have largely replaced my social
life by a vicarious interest in the kind of thing that happens in a
neighborhood like this. In a
small city on an obscure secluded street one soon learns to recognize the
infinite variety in every doorway, behind every window.
The apartment over me is
occupied by a woman who was one of the first to move into this building.
The apartments in the upper front contain two fat women with
elaborately teased and heightened hair.
One leaves garbage lying around in the hall, on the steps, in the
yard, or wherever it happens to fall from her lethargic hand.
The other has an equally fat boyfriend named Vince, and is now and
then carried away to the hospital because of a screaming fit. Charming girls, both of them; not the type one is glad to have for
neighbors. I've always been
relieved they live in the front of the building, not in the back.
It must have been about
three weeks ago when the downstairs front apartment became vacant. The landlord had put up one of those ridiculous, hand-chalked signs
that said "Exquisite Apartment, Furnished.
All utilities. Can be
viewed by calling this number for appointment". The man always has the most over-inflated idea of what he gives his
tenants and deprecates everything we do in return.
He is forever turning off the heat if he sees an open window, and
invariably ignores complaints and requests.
So I smiled when I saw "Exquisite Apartment".
None of us ever knows
when the landlord is likely to come around but his presence can be sensed
and when the oppressive atmosphere that surrounds him lifts, we know he's
gone again. It was in this way
that I knew he was no longer about, and yet a light burned at night in the
window of the vacant apartment.
The obvious conclusion was that it had been rented, but it was almost a week
before I discovered who it was who had taken the "Exquisite Apartment".
The woman above me, Mrs.
Carstairs, was sitting out in the yard one afternoon and I had stepped
outside to say hello and to get a breath of fresh air when I noticed that
another woman was standing there, somewhat awkwardly to one side.
She was small, slightly stooped, with the pleasant rather innocuous
face of an aging child. She had
inordinately large full breasts for a person of her size and the way in
which they followed the curve of her stooping shoulders, making a neat
little ovoid of her, combined with the general impression she gave of being
brown and wrinkled made me think she was like nothing so much as a walnut. The walnut woman smiled upon being introduced, and proceeded to ask
me in the most correct and delicate manner possible what to do about the
garbage. I could see it was not
a subject that would ordinarily come up at all within her scope of things
and that she was taking an almost
gleeful delight in talking about, to her, such an incongruous
subject. I explained as well as
I could and even dropped a subtle hint about the garbage-dropping girl from
the upstairs front. At last,
with slow quiet little movements she picked her way back through the yard
into her own part of the house, and the rest of us returned to our own
I wish I could say I had
immediately sensed something strange about her but the truth is I merely
thought she was shy and unused to people.
Unused to people! What
significance this first impression was soon to take on.
The next time I saw her
she commented on the fact that she had heard my piano and enjoyed it very
much. Each word was spoken with
unusual clarity and deliberation.
It was hard to believe she had always spoken the language, and yet
she had no accent at all unless it was a clinical one—
that is, one that
would come from very carefully learning not to have one. She was full of several little questions: when I played was I practicing, or did I just sit down and play? When I repeated certain portions of one piece or another, did it mean
that I was practicing?
I was beginning to get
the idea that she knew something about music and was baiting me, yet when I
asked her if she played or was a lover of music she said hastily, "Oh, no.
Not at all." It was almost as if
I had caught her pretending to herself or imagining that she knew something
That evening when I sat
down to play, nothing I attempted seemed to come out right.
I was thinking of my silent listener and felt that just as each word
fell from her lips in abnormal purity, so she was expecting a like standard
of perfection from my performance.
Finding it impossible to play the more austere things, I abandoned
Bach and Purcell and attempted some Rachmaninoff.
I hadn't gone more than a few measures into the thing when I was
struck by the feeling that I was making a ridiculous pretentious fool of
myself and it was this way through to the very end of the piece; every time
I tried to put any emotion into it I felt as though I were running naked
through the center of town. A
cool discriminating intelligence was listening and making its opinions felt.
For several days I had
been bothered by disturbing dreams and now my imagination was aroused and
running at full tilt. Each day I
took what I know of this woman and tried a different character on her quite as
if she were a paper doll, but no paper doll had ever worn costumes of the kind I
gave her. Perhaps she was a spy of
some kind, I said to myself and then I thought she might be an FBI agent coming
to impound somebody's garbage; I had heard of such things. As to garbage, why not mine? It was to me and me alone she had addressed her somewhat lengthy remarks on the
subject. I began a mental inventory
of things I had thrown away since she was here—
before she came—
last year. It didn't seem very
interesting, any of it, except for occasional pages of stories I had re-written
and letters from friends urging me to come back to New York and referring to the
"situation" by which I knew they meant the situation as regards writers and
their relation to and dealings with publishers. But would the FBI know this? If not an agent for this government, why not for the Communists? I dismissed this as hysterical, yet everyone knows the best spies are
inconspicuous and if we have ours they must have theirs. And then I thought she might be an embezzler, a poisoner or an ax
murderer. There was something
profoundly removed yet observant about her, like a person who was not a part of
anything but had at all costs to blend in. For a few nights when I locked up and pulled the shades I did so in the
full knowledge hat she might very well be standing quietly outside, her feet
placed neatly together, toe against toe, heel flush with heel, hands folded
childishly in front, and a singular narrow little smile on her lips, eyes glued
beadily on my window.
Then one evening I heard
a soft knock on the door and there she was, and she came in and sat down and
began in her precise little way to speak of Bertrand Russell and "good
literature" and the weather and other general things. I remember that the color of her apartment bothered her; seemed in fact
to be draining her of vitality. She
referred to it again and again' didn't I think it was a most unpleasant color? How could one live with it, day in, day out. Of course she worked at home, and so her surroundings were very important
to her. Also, the apartment was
filthy. I asked her in what way, and
she told me an appalling story about scraping dirt from around the base of the
faucets with her nail file. I showed
her some of my books and paintings; we talked of generalities. The only strange thing that happened that night occurred when I offered
her coffee. "No!" she said, starting
sharply, and then as if by extreme effort, settled back in her chair. I could almost hear gears whirring, or some sort of electronic apparatus
selecting and rejecting. It was all
in the space of a minute, and then she said in what for her was a perfectly
ordinary voice, "I mean—
I brought it to her from the kitchen. Then I asked her if she
wanted sugar and cream, and the same thing happened all over again—the look of
fright, imaginary gears whirring, a sharp "No", then relaxation and an abrupt
reversal of opinion: yes, she would take both. I had already given her a spoon and napkin when I brought in the coffee. Returning to the kitchen, I picked up the sugar bowl and spoon and a
small pitcher into which I had poured a generous measure of whole milk with
cream floating on top. I placed
these on the table in front of her; she looked into the pitcher, stiffened again
and said, "That's not cream".
I apologized for only
having milk. I was sure that she had
not intended to imply an oversight on my part, but was only making a surprised
and rather frightened observation. Still, I felt rather as though I were operating a coffee machine in reverse; the
gears had been set for coffee with sugar and cream and here I was putting in
milk. I had a feeling if I was not
careful I would be asked to return some loose change.
She did use the milk
after her gears had considered the problem and come up with a favorable answer,
but for some reason completely ignored the spoon and napkin, and instead used
the sugar spoon to stir her coffee and then laid the wet spoon on the table.
A few days later she was
standing on her steps as I came up the walk, and asked me if I would like to
drop by the next Friday night for "a beer". I was still as fascinated with her as ever and somewhat fearful too, but
my curiosity and my imagination by this time far outweighed any sense of caution
I might be feeling. Besides, Mrs.
Carstairs was going to be there. I
was still bothered by vague disquieting dreams; in fact some mornings I felt on
arising as if my brains had actually been picked over like a bowl of new peas;
some discarded, other more succulent ones put aside for use later. As for the piano, I could no longer go near it. I had tried on several occasions and on each one my performance became
successively worse. The same problem
occurred over and over; I couldn't meet the standards which I felt were being
imposed on me from outside, and I was ashamed to interpret music emotionally
under the lucid eye of whatever it was that was watching. Call it self-consciousness if you will, never before have I felt such
oppression; such disdain for my pursuit of a small harmless hobby. This woman—was she a woman? I sometimes thought of her as a small eternal ageless gnome who had put on a
stuffed brassiere with no regard for womanly proportion and was now masquerading
as a woman.
Friday night arrived and
after much wavering I finally presented myself at her door, half an hour late. Mrs. Carstairs showed up at almost exactly the same time—perhaps she
too had felt reluctant to spend an
evening in such company. We were
seated and our hostess glided noiselessly out into the kitchen where our beer
was poured and then brought in to us. Since she seemed to do things very slowly I had entirely too much time to
think about that beer before it finally arrived and I had a wild desire to rush
into the kitchen on some meaningless pretext and snatch the beer can, unopened,
from her hand, go into the cupboard and select a different glass from the one
she had chosen, wash and rinse it very carefully in hot water, open the beer
myself and pour it. Then and only
then, it seemed to me, would I be able to relax in the comparative safety of
Mrs. Carstairs' company. Nevertheless I did not do this, but continued to sit in the depths of a scratchy
green armchair. Nursing the
beginnings of a headache and shivering slightly, I began to drink my beer.
Her conversation, as on
the evening she had spent with me, continued to be surprisingly good. She spoke on a wide range of things, prefacing almost every remark with a
few words indicating her own complete ignorance or inadequate knowledge of the
subject. As one by one opinions and
information were exchanged on decoration, literature, television and a host of
other things, I began to see the conversation taking on a general direction; a
predominance of a certain attitude was emerging. In some very subtle way she had led each one of us into agreement on one
thing—that things were no longer the "way they used to be", and she was now
proceeding to draw us out on why we felt that way, all the while pressing very
insistently (without actually ever saying how) that she
had noticed it too. It was about this time I got the idea she was efficiently pumping us for
any information we might have about how it was two, three, seven, ten or twenty
years ago and that in truth she knew nothing at all about how it had been. At once on realizing this I tried to become almost as vague as she, and I
immediately felt invisible feelers withdraw and regroup for a new attack; I
noticed a barely perceptible narrowing of her eyes. Why not, I thought, launch a counter-attack? If for nothing else than a momentary satisfaction of seeing how she might
react, I determined to do so. She seemed, I reasoned, to be digging for some
sort of pertinent information and though with her wide, slightly befuddled stare
fixed on one it seemed perhaps that any and all information she could manage to
extract from Mrs. Carstairs and myself might apply, I knew it was not so. As with any researcher or connoisseur of a particular type of knowledge,
she was willing to accept much extraneous matter in order that she could
eventually come to the meat of the thing; that for which she had sought us out.
The basic theme of my
counter-attack was to be a distressingly vague attitude about anything specific
on which she tried to pin me down, coupled with a gradual introduction into the
conversation of things fantastic and unknown. Thus I began to steer our talk away from the commonplaces of this earth
and onto such imperfectly understood phenomena as flying saucers and the untried
powers people possess. As a ploy she
immediately evinced a great and long-standing interest in unidentified flying
objects, without, of course, once referring to any specific incident or type of
craft. As for untried powers, she
tried to squash that by bringing up Norman Vincent Peale and others of similar
ilk. Annoying as these
countermotions were, the loss in the conversation of a logical sequence of
revelations was almost completely compensated for by the insights gained into
this personality. Here indeed was a
superior intelligence! I countered
again by never once asking her a personal question, but tried in other ways to
let her know I possessed far more knowledge about her than anything that could
be gained by knowing if and how she voted and what kind of breakfast food she
I think, looking back,
that she must have understood. When
nervous I have a habit of drinking a first and second drink down much faster
than I should and consequently I had downed my first beer sooner than anyone,
naturally expecting another. But I
was forced to twiddle and turn my empty glass for the remaining two hours or so
spent in her company. It seems that
when she meticulously invited the two of us in "for a beer", she meant just
that. How literal! As the evening
wore on, I occasionally glanced at my glass and then at her and I am sure she
was cognizant of her blunder. Electronics do not a human make, nor whirling gears an understanding of the
As we left that night,
she stood politely to one side of the front door and shook our hands. I felt as though I were on some kind of a receiving line, and was either
finished with or passing into something. It was then she made her most significant remark—glancing deep into my
eyes and leaning slightly forward, she said "I knew I was sent here for a
purpose. Yes, it must have been. I was wondering what it was, and now I know".
What admirable audacity! I was completely taken aback and could only think to mutter some silly
thing about how she must be some sort of Buddhist, to which she slowly shook her
head, smiled, and said only—"No".
I saw her only once
more. The day before she left she
came in to tell me she was going and to thank me for the use of my garbage can. I asked her if she might come back sometime, but she said no—she was
This whole episode has
completely unsettled me. I think
about it almost all the time and have as yet found no remedy, except that I shall soon have to move. Not too soon, it would excite suspicion in certain quarters.
Where I will go I do not
as yet have any idea. But I must get
out before the prime rule is violated—that I, who came to convert become
converted. The heavens know what she
has left behind her.