BY CHARLES PINCH
Charles Pinch is still looking for his birth certificate. Copyright is held by the author.
Frances, there you are in my dreams, lovely and longingful. When I could not reach you my arms separated from my body and took up the chase.
IT WAS MR. PRICE AND MR. MORT. Reginald and Stanley — even Stan the Man — to everybody else, but Mr. Price and Mr. Mort to each other.
It was Mr. Price who stood glowering at his screen window in the bedroom of the apartment below Mr. Mort’s bedroom. Glowering at what? Specifically, a brown sludge sliding down its length. Sliding? Oozing, Mr. Price thought. Oozing down his open screen window. There were a couple of possibilities as to what it might be before he had to touch it. God forbid, I should touch it! It looked a bit like a runny stool. (Would Mr. Mort stoop that low?) But it didn’t stink like one. Oil of some kind, then. Tar or paint, maybe? On a window? Mr. Price scratched his head. A slightly balding head that befitted his retired status and even more retiring lifestyle. Okay. Time for the finger. Reluctantly he pressed the tip of his pointer against it. Some of the brown gunk stuck to it and he raised it to his nose. Chocolate! Chocolate syrup! What the hell was he doing pouring chocolate syrup down the window?
This warranted a twelver. Twelve hits because he knew Mr. Mort was still asleep with an hour or so to go before work. At the same time, he thought: Callas! Lucia di Lammermoor!
He reached for the broom handle he kept beside his bed and thumped—well, not really thumped — boomed on the ceiling (Mr. Mort’s bedroom floor) with all the energy and evil his ageing arms could muster. He screamed: “You filthy uncouth slob! Have you no consideration for the more highly evolved species you share a planet with?” He heard Mr. Mort bellow up with a start that rattled his ceiling. “Take that! And that!” Two cinder blocks crash-landed above his head. That would be Mr. Mort putting his feet down on the floor. And, “You’re certifiable, Price! Don’t you know it’s six o’clock in the fucking morning!”
Mr. Price rubbed his hands together and a gleeful sneer curled his lips.
“Mozart wrote a ditty called A Little Night Music. Here’s a little morning music!” He clicked the play button on his state of the art sound system, adjusted the volume to maximum and let the diva take over. The opera included an aria sung by a soprano who could break glass in Barcelona while singing in New York.
“AAACH!” Mr. Mort screamed. He thudded into the bathroom, his hands plastered over his ears; his eyes squeezed shut because maybe some of that banshee screech could get into his head through open eyes. Not looking where he was going, he collided against the shower stall, jerked back and slammed his tailbone into the unyielding chrome towel rack. “ARRRGH! Would somebody please put that yowling hyena out of her misery!”
“You don’t like Maria Callas?” Mr. Price shouted through his chocolate-sludged screen window.
“She should have her jaws wired shut!” Mr. Mort shouted back through his.
He slammed it with a bang. Six-thirty. Up, now. Might as well get going. He bounced around in the kitchen with two wads of rolled up toilet paper plugging his ears, turned on the coffee maker and headed into the shower. He’d clean the spilled chocolate off his window when he got home from his bus driver’s job that night. Last night, his cell had rung in the bedroom so he’d carried his buttered bread and an open bottle of chocolate syrup into the room with him to answer it. (Stan liked a brown sugar or chocolate syrup sandwich before turning in.) He’d set the bottle onto the window ledge and well, accidents happen. He should have known better than to trust a trick elbow. And before he could catch it…then a gleeful sneer curled across his lips. “He’ll be all day cleaning off his screen. It’ll drive that neat freak mad!” If that wasn’t reason for a change of mood, nothing was. Mr. Mort stepped gaily into the shower and under the pelting downpour that awakened his sleepy pores, opened his lungs in an aria of his own. Between the two, Maria Callas was drowned out. Literally.
He dressed quickly after toweling off and while doing up his last button, noticed the music had stopped. He nodded, pleased. Mission accomplished. He scarfed down two pop tarts that he caught with a flying leap as they rocketed out of the toaster. His thick regulation boots tramped heavily over the uncarpeted hardwood as he stepped across his living room floor. Just before leaving he clicked his DVD player on. Summer Slam! Wrestlemania VII! Cranked the volume to maximum and evil, evil, evil, hit the replay button. Then he locked the door behind him and clomped down the small flight of stairs. Like most mornings when he left for work, he was whistling.
“Okay, okay. I’m coming!” Mrs. Singh opened the door of unit three — the third unit in the six unit building. She lived one floor above and on the other side of Mr. Price. She wasn’t the landlord but she was the landlord’s right-arm. She was the landlord’s right arm because she was the kind of woman who liked taking care of things and because he was the kind of landlord who preferred to sit in his armchair, watch TV and let other people have all the fun.
Mr. Price stood glaring at her — as if she was the one who had deliberately left on the Summer Slam! telecast. She picked up her master key from a cracked Limoges dish on the hall shelf.
“What is it this time?”
“You can’t hear it?”
She cocked an ear. “Roller Derby?”
“That was last week. Wrestling!”
“They know how to scream, don’t they?”
“Tomorrow morning I’m treating him to Taichovsky’s 1812 Overture,” Mr. Price confided with a snicker.
“The one with the cannon fire? Oh no, you don’t! Last time the neighbourhood thought we were being shelled by aliens! Don’t you remember that nice policeman who warned you through clenched teeth?”
Mr. Price did. He had been as pleased as punch. The power of music had once again asserted itself! He waited, hands in his pockets, jingling change while she opened the door to Mr. Mort’s untidy unit, shook her head at the sight of the mess, and switched off the DVD.
Then later, standing together in Mr. Price’s bedroom.
“Chocolate syrup,” he explained. “I’m sure it’s deliberate.”
“I’m sure it’s his trick elbow. I got a bruise last week to prove it.”
“I’ll get hot water and soap.”
“Dish detergent if you don’t mind, Mr. Price.”
Scrubba-scubba. He stood watching, hands in his pockets, jingling change that quietly drove her mad. Finished, she stood up and lectured like the exasperated mother of a pair of unruly, pesky little boys, “Why don’t you two try getting along for a change? Life would be so much easier. Especially for me.”
“Mrs. Singh. Before there was the world as we know it there was ‘Pangea’.”
“The continents were a single mass. Then they separated. When they get back together again I will speak civilly to Mr. Mort.”
If it was anything’s fault, it was the building’s. It looked enough like brick and mortar and there were little balconies with steel railings but paper could take many forms. Acoustically, the floors were cardboard and the walls resonated like the inside of a Stradivarius. A cheap imitation Strad. This was blue collar Ontario (or what was left of it) where the workingman and woman grovel for a livable wage. The kind of building that suited Mr. Mort, the bus-driver, who after deductions made a little above a livable wage but not quite suitable for Mr. Price, a retired schoolteacher whose respectable stock portfolio took a dive one day and drowned before it could recover. He sustained himself on a pension and careful shopping.
Each Sunday morning he planned his week. CD cases spread out on the living room coffee table. Verdi’s Opera Choruses (Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala. Ricardo Muti). Nothing like a collective male crescendo to set the heart racing at dawn! Tuesday…Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The ear-splitting confrontation between the Commentore’s statue and the murderous suitor! Wednesday…
It was a Wednesday, in fact, when things did not fall into plan. Mr. Price had selected Teresa Stratas singing an aria in La Traviata. (Who, except a witless tone-deaf moron could not appreciate that masterpiece at any volume?) when the desired effect did not happen. He expected to hear “Aaargh!” Then a string of profanities through the screen window above his bedroom, then the crash landing of a pair of cinderblocks. Instead, all he heard was a big lump of a man turning over in his bed. A likeable lump, according to Mrs. Singh, whose wife left him for another man, so a bereft likeable lump.
Perhaps the volume wasn’t loud enough. No, no, it was turned to max. (Mr. Price never adjusted it unless he was listening to it himself while alone.) So what was the problem? Why wasn’t he—?
Mr. Price, with that leering grin, rubbed his hands together. The cinder blocks above his head had landed!
He listened to Mr. Mort twaddle across the bedroom, into the bathroom, relieve himself in a stream, and twaddle back. Twaddle back with even less energy than he had twaddled forward.
Mr. Price turned the volume down a little to listen. Mr. Mort sank into his bed like thirty tons of cargo being dumped into a ship’s hold. “Loxodonta elephantis africana!” he screamed. He had screamed it before. Many times. It was his barb of choice.
To which Mr. Mort had screamed back through his open window. “You never heard of som’thin’ called the English language?”
“It doesn’t have a name for you yet!”
No such repartee today. Just a groan. Then a couple minutes later (Mr. Price had turned the volume down another notch) an unsettled snore. Mr. Mort didn’t go into work that day. Jesse Ventura didn’t scream scripted insults at Randy, the Macho Man, Savage.
Since they never spoke directly Mr. Price could hardly ask Mr. Mort what was wrong. Well, he would doubtless be back on his feet tomorrow and tomorrow was another day. He had selected highlights from The Three Tenors: Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo. But Thursday came and after muting the volume at six oh five, Mr. Price heard twaddle, relief, twaddle back, crash-thump, sigh and unsettled snore. Except that today, Mr. Mort appeared more unsettled than usual. He turned in his bed all morning. He turned in his bed all afternoon. He only got out of bed that day to twaddle and relieve himself. A week passed. A week of arias and screeching sopranos, tenors in trio and booming cannon fire. And not one day did Mr. Mort rise and bounce into the shower, catch his pop tarts in mid air or clomp down the stairs.
It was while he was picking up his mail. A few bills in the brass box numbered 2 and a notice of special savings from the Musical Heritage Club. He smelled Mrs. Singh’s cooking in the hall. When she opened her door, he saw she carried a small tray with a bowl of something savoury and steaming. Beside the bowl were a spoon and a napkin.
“Dining out?” he joked.
“This is for Stan. I want him to eat something. Good dal. Everything an ill body needs.”
“Ill? What’s the matter with him?” Did she hear the simpering delight that crept into his voice when he reached “with him?” Yes, she did, from the scowl on her face.
“Flu, maybe. I tell him, You drive a bus, you wear a catcher’s mitt. You going to catch something every time somebody steps aboard. He never listens.”
“You sure it’s the flu?” Mr. Price asked. “He’s been in bed for a week.”
“How could I not?”
“Me? I think it’s a broken heart. He’s never got over his wife leaving him for a younger man. Not even a good dal cure that.”
“What woman would put up with him?” Mr. Price sputtered incredulously.
“A lucky one when he gets himself straightened out. His divorce came through last week. Right now, he’s hurting. Stan’s a simple man but a good one. And he’s lonely.”
“Perhaps that’s why he drives a bus.”
Mr. Price, not knowing what came over him, wanted to ask, “Is there anything I can do?”
But she was up the small flight of stairs and into Mr. Mort’s untidy apartment before he could open his mouth.
So the next time when she came out with another steaming bowl of dal (and Mr. Mort had still not gone to work — nine days now) he asked, “Is there anything I can do?”
“For him? Move out, maybe.”
But his plea was sincere and Mrs. Singh regretted her sarcasm. She smiled and said. “Why don’t you ask him?”
“We don’t speak, remember?”
“Nope.” Then she turned, after unlocking Mr. Mort’s door with her master key and,
“Maybe not play the kind of music that would wake that guy in the Bible.”
“You mean Lazarus?”
“You don’t know who Lazarus is?”
“My god is Krishna. You mind?”
Then she closed the door after entering the untidy apartment that wasn’t quite so untidy after she had begun straightening it these last few mornings. She also took down a load of Stan’s laundry and ran it through the machine and dryer for him. Mr. Price, taking his impishness in hand, complied like a truly commendable adult. For two days and nights he did not play his music. Nothing. No opera. No piano etudes. No Boston Pops. No London Philharmonic. At night he lay in his bed and listened to Mr. Mort turn and toss on his mattress. What restless sleep! What un-restful repose! Lonely since his wife left him, was he? Well, lonely was relative. He was lonely much of the time for his wife who had died many years ago. But he got over the worst of it. You always get over it. Don’t you? Did he?
On day number 10 Mrs. Singh’s nephew, who the late Mr. Singh helped put through medical school, visited Mr. Mort in his apartment. He stayed 20 minutes. Through the door Mr. Price listened to him and Mrs. Singh talking softly and Mrs. Singh saying, “Yes, yes.” He thought he heard the word “sedative.”
It wasn’t the same. It hadn’t been the same for almost two weeks now and Mr. Price was beginning to wonder if it had changed for good. That would be a fine thing — no more Mr. Mort above him. No more roller derby or Summer Slam. But still, what if he got somebody worse? A rowdy pair of students with even rowdier friends who brayed and yawped and drank and spit and fouled all night? All night long through his screen window. Where was Jesse Ventura when you needed him?
That night when Mr. Price went to bed he slept just as restlessly as Mr. Mort turning on the mattress above his head. Would they ever find the peace they were both looking for? For Mr. Mort a happy heart. For Mr. Price some quiet time for soul-soothing music. It was a blessed relief anyway not to have to listen to surround-sound wrestling on replay this last week and a half.
He listened now to the tick-tock of his clock. A definitely un-musical sound. Time? Four o’clock in the morning. He’d be a dragged out skid by the time the sun came up if he didn’t get some shut-eye. But tick, tock. Turn and groan. Mr. Mort, would you please go to sleep! Dear God, may I, Reginald Price, please go to sleep! No use. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and rooted for his slippers. Then he went over to his shelf. He flipped through his CD’s. Mozart? No. Chopin? Piano at this ungodly hour of the morning? Back in your coffin, Frederick! Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata? Maybe. He looked out the window. No moon in the sky. Brahms? Brahms, what? Lullaby and goodnight. No. Kitsch music! So sweet it makes my teeth curl! Lullaby and goodnight. May the angels….
Aw, what the hell. It is peaceful. And lullabies? Aren’t those what rosy-cheeked mothers sing to their kiddies to put them to sleep? Maybe. Okay. Who knows? He slipped in the diskette. Clicked play. Then he returned to his bed. He placed his hands at the back of his head and listened. It was beautiful music. Much more beautiful than he remembered. But he couldn’t actually remember when he had last listened to it. Kitsch?
At the same time he listened to Mr. Mort. The lump was still turning in his bed. Restless. Perhaps the volume was too loud? No, no, it was just right. Loud enough for Mr. Price to enjoy and a beautiful soft echo of music through his open window.
Listen, Mr. Mort. Stanley, listen to the music and see what it does for you.
Was he actually thinking kind thoughts about his reviled neighbour? What was the matter with him?
Gradually (he wasn’t sure how gradually because he was looking up at the ceiling, not watching his clock) Mr. Mort’s restlessness subsided. And then, at about six or so, it stopped altogether. A few minutes later Mr. Price heard snoring. A few minutes later he fell asleep himself.
Mrs. Singh heard the music through her open window too. She got up out of bed and stood looking at the dawn. The little street was just waking up. The sun reached into the pockets of shadow and pulled the morning out. The neighbourhood stretched and yawned. A squirrel scampered across the lawn in front of her and she laughed.
By week’s end Mr. Mort was back on his feet. But he was still a little under the weather. His twaddle was shakier than usual and he waited for the pop tarts beside the toaster instead of catching them in mid air like Ken Griffey Junior. On the third morning he returned to work. He showered to the background score of Brahms’ Lullaby and found himself humming the melody as he buttoned his shirt. Before leaving that day and clomping down the stairs and sighing for the love of a good woman, he walked over to the recorder and made sure the play button was off.
For the next while (who knows how long?) every night Mr. Price played Brahms’ Lullaby and every night Mr. Mort and Mr. Price slept peacefully without turning in their beds.
And then, it was on a Thursday. Mrs. Singh remembered because she got the shock of her life. Mr. Price had neglected to pick up his mail the day before so he decided to do it just then, just, as it happened, after Mr. Mort had locked his door, said good morning to Mrs. Singh who was sweeping the hallway, and was leaving for work. They stopped in their tracks when they saw each other. Standing at the bottom of the stairs Mr. Price confronted the man who had tortured him for months with Roller Derby Dynamo and Randy the Macho Man Savage. Standing at the top of the stairs Mr. Mort looked at the man who had too many times shattered his pre-dawn sleep with Taichovsky’s 1812 cannon fire.
Then Mr. Price did a remarkable thing. He turned his back to him and unlocked his mailbox. He removed a few bills but nothing from the Heritage Society.
“Nice peaceful music, Stanley….”
“Peaceful, Reggie.” Mr. Mort said, clomping down the stairs and brushing past him on his way out the door. For the first time in a long time he was whistling again.