The cicadas were back. Hordes of the red-eyed bastards he called REBs, snarling, rattling, spitting and fornicating all over the illuminated courtyard. Shredding the night's silence like buzz-saws on a binge. Behaving as if the laws of decency did not apply to them.
11:45 p.m. on a Sunday so muggy a well-dressed citizen might sweat standing rigid. Did these bastards care about the hour? Did they care about the foliage? Did they give two poots about innocent children and hardworking adults in need of sleep? No sir.
Alvin Janssen cared. The retired middle school principal stood outside the tenement building wondering how many noise ordinances the bastards were violating, and why local authorities were so lax. Had everyone gone deaf or simply stopped caring? Was an obnoxious insects lobby greasing palms behind the scenes? Was PETA issuing threats on behalf of REBs? The way things were going, Alvin figured he and every other law-abiding citizen in Massachusetts would soon be paying reparations to descendants of indigenous insects, bears, whales and whatnot. Order and decorum were seeping through a hole in the dike of civilization and Alvin's thumb could not plug it. He was seventy-eight and growing increasingly aware of his limitations.
He knew cicada was the politically correct term. And he knew countless politically correct imbeciles in Massachusetts pronounced it chickada implying kinship between the REB and the chickadee—the state bird for Christ's sake. He could not correct every imbecile. Nor could he stifle the morons who called REBs locusts—as if there were anything biblical about the brood. Alvin took a deep, calming breath and let it go. A REB by any other name would no less red-eyed and bastardly be, he told himself, repeating the thought like a mantra until he felt both poetic and magnanimous.
He had just returned from his nephew's wedding. He'd paid the cab fare but refused to tip the turbaned driver, a confessed Armenian immigrant who'd done an adequate, though not outstanding job getting him home. “Tips are for exceptional service," he'd explained, shouting over the REBs, taking pains to enunciate in case the driver didn't understand English. “That is a tip in itself," he added with a wink. “Another tip? Leave the turban at home. It's bad for business."
Alvin, who'd taken a bus to the wedding, allowed himself several sips of champagne at the reception, justifying, if not necessitating, his calling a cab for the return trip. He was pleased now to see the champagne hadn't diminished his willingness to educate.
The cabbie muttered something indecipherable and drove off, leaving Alvin inhaling carbon monoxide, puffing on an unlit cigar, fishing for his keys and trying to reflect on things like love, loss, lactose intolerance and immigration reform.
The REBs made thinking impossible.
“Bastards," he muttered and the cigar fell from his mouth. Moments later, he found his keys and entered the apartment building. Inside, he closed the door slowly. Soundlessly. Man's got to have his sleep, he thought. Got to be courteous.
The thought was a source of pride for Alvin. Courtesy in closing the door spoke highly of his character. Even when stinking drunk. “Got to be courteous," he whispered, now lingering in the foyer, retouching the door, providing himself with instant replay. “Got to be court. . ." he was saying a third time, when someone in 1-B interrupted with a fart.
Though the walls in this tenement were porous, Alvin believed a person would have to break wind into a microphone to be heard so clearly from such a distance. The more he thought about it, the more outraged he became. “Nearly midnight and tomorrow a working day," he muttered, glancing at his watch and trudging across the hall to 1-B. He placed his left ear to the door and heard thunderous snoring. A belch, more snoring, shouted words--“Never did fate forbid me . . . to outburst on your night with all my gift"—another belch, another fart. More snoring.
Alvin knocked on the door, lightly at first, gradually escalating to full-fisted pounding. The ruckus inside continued. ~ Henry F. Doid, the new tenant in 1-B, was a voracious sleeper, a wind-rattler of Falstaffian proportions, though he hardly looked the part. The face he saw in the mirror every morning was thin, pockmarked, seemingly pieced together from a scrap pile by the pennywise creator. He had rat red eyes, a chicken's ass for a nose, lips better suited for a sea trout. The mirror never lied.
Still, Henry felt better about his chances of getting through days humiliation-free since graduating high school and landing his first job at the manufacturing plant of Bonham Bugs-B-Gone. At Bonham, each employee was issued a respro-techno mask which Henry alone wore joyously while on company grounds. Recently, positioned under a workbench to retrieve a dropped pencil, he'd overheard a passing group of unmasked co-workers speculate about a grotesque, mask-loving colleague, likely possessing the brain of a frog and a pecker suited for a hamster. The group stopped talking and all faces reddened when Henry rose off the floor, mask in place and pencil in hand. Under similar circumstances, Henry's high school classmates would have frog-brained and hamster-dicked him to death. His coworkers went out of their way after the incident, to avoid using the words “frog" and “hamster" when Henry was in earshot. Clearly, things were looking up.
If he'd been inclined, Henry could have disproved the frog/hamster rumors by standing on a table in the Bonham cafeteria, dropping his pants and reciting obscure snatches of Victorian poetry. He had a remarkable memory for verse, an unnatural fondness for Robert Browning and a standard issue doink. He preferred closets to cafeterias, though; obscurity to acclaim.
At night, behind locked doors and pulled shades, Henry'd recite Browning poems sotto voce, waiting for sleep to take him. Sleep was for Henry Doid what a phone booth was for Clark Kent. In sleep, amid farts, belches, fragments of “Pictor Ignotus" and bullish snoring, Henry claimed the identity he hid from in daylight.
“Blown harshly, keeps the trump its golden cry?" ~ In Apt. 1-A, building superintendent Frank Lopes sat up in bed, and, for the tenth time in the last two weeks wondered, what good's a horn if you won't toot it? Then, teeth gritted, he plopped back down, rolled onto his stomach and pulled the pillow over his head.
A retired social worker, Frank considered himself a benevolent super. He tried to treat his tenants fairly and with respect. It was a point of honor for him not to abuse his power. If he believed one tenant was misbehaving, he'd wait for a complaint from another before taking action. He liked to think of himself as a Godfather figure to his tenants. His own problems went directly to Jesus.
Lying awake at 11:51 on this humid Sunday night, Frank assumed Doid in 1-B had added wall-banging to his late-night repertoire. He sighed and repeated the prayer he'd been sending up nightly since the weirdo had moved in next door: “Father. Please send your servant a complaint so he might do service unto the people and unto you, amen."
The first floor housed only the super, the new tenant, the boiler room and a storage area. What did the tenants on floors above care about noise from 1-B? They didn't have to deal with Doid's racket. Where was justice? Frank wondered. ~ “Unacceptable," Alvin Janssen was muttering to himself, rubbing knuckles sore from pounding. “Man moves into an apartment, got to behave like a human being. Man's got to get his sleep," he said squinting now at the door to 1-A. He wondered if the super was deaf, stupid or simply too timid to do his job. Alvin was going to take this up with Frank Lopes right now.
It was 11:52 when he lodged the complaint implicating both the new tenant and the cicadas. “Exterminate those red-eyed bastards," he told Lopes, “and tell this new tenant he's not living in a barn. Man's got a right to have human beings for neighbors. Understand?"
Not until Lopes promised to hop directly on the new tenant's case did Alvin turn and head upstairs to his third floor studio. ~ On the first floor, Frank Lopes was knocking on the door to 1-B. He was thinking about Alvin Janssen who led all tenants in complaints lodged. The old timer could be an inspiration to fellow retirees: a straight-backed septuagenarian with no wife, no children and no discernible hobby who never seemed bored or confused about his role in the rapidly changing universe. The key, Lopes supposed, was a dogged commitment to a definitive code of propriety. Janssen seemed convinced he personally knew right from wrong, held the universe accountable and had no patience for any entity failing to adhere to his code. Also, he had a history of contacting local, state and federal officials when he felt his complaints were not being properly addressed in house.
Enforcing Janssen's Code wasn't always pleasant. The previous spring the old man had railed about late night noise coming from the apartment of his neighbor in 3-D. The neighbor was Carmelita Scott, a demure and devout, 73-year-old church-going widow, admired by all. Frank, ten years younger than the widow, especially admired her vagina, occasionally popping in when all other tenants were asleep. He suspected Janssen might have feelings for the widow as well. How else account for the old man lodging his complaint in a manner which cast no aspersions on the woman? Janssen placed blame squarely on the beak of Nelson Mandela, the widow's African-Grey parrot, threatening to get animal control and the public health department involved if the super wasn't up to the task. Frank knew the parrot was, at most, minimally at fault, but it wasn't his job to argue the point. His duty was to relay the complaint to the parrot's owner.
Carmelita took it hard. She'd been struggling emotionally and economically since her husband's passing. She told Frank she couldn't bear parting with the parrot. She didn't want to move out, having only recently moved in. She liked this place. Appreciated more than most that it came furnished, and, the price fit her budget. Also, Frank could only assume, she enjoyed the occasional late night visit from the super.
It was Frank who proposed the laryngectomy. The procedure—combined with Carmelita and Frank's efforts to copulate in silence—satisfied Janssen, but sapped joy from the super's trysts. The parrot emerged from the operation mute, morose and seemingly intent on pecking itself to death. Mandela's distress weighed heavily on Frank Lopes. The super stopped popping in on the widow and prayed over the matter.
Months later, the widow reported having accidentally pushed the parrot—in its cage—out her bathroom window. The body was never recovered. “Gone," the widow lamented. “Flown home to Jesus." Frank had, at the time, viewed this as an excellent example of he and the Lord working together in mysterious ways. He allowed as how Carmelita Scott and Alvin Janssen might sometimes be agents of the Lord as well. He'd have to think it through later. He had work to do now. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and knocked full force on Doid's door. ~ Henry Doid rolled onto his back smiling smugly. He was enjoying one of his favorite dreams. The one in which he, blessed with Hugh Jackman’s face, Hugh Hefner's smoking jacket and Hugh Grant’s accent, addressed an auditorium full of coed English majors on the relevance of Browning in the age of Twitter. He was in the midst of another stirring recitation of “Pictor Ignotus" when he heard a commotion from the rafters. He stopped and peered toward the source of the disturbance. The unsightly girl—nameless, harelipped hunchback who contributed nothing to the class—was trying to build a wall behind which she might sit listening to the great man without drawing attention to her ugliness.
Professor Doid let her know by clearing his throat and lifting an eyebrow that her use of hammer and drill was counterproductive. The professor waited another moment, then proceeded: “Tastes sweet the water with such specks of earth?" ~ Frank had heard the water question almost as often as he'd heard the one about the trumpet. Doid was apparently still sleeping. Frank doubted he'd be able to wake him without rousting tenants two and three flights up. Better deal with this in the morning, he thought.
For the first time in months, he decided to visit Carmelita Scott in 3-D. He hoped the widow was willing. ~ Next morning, between 6:30 and 6:45, Frank Lopes snuck downstairs and again pounded on Doid's door. The snoring—all sound in fact—had ceased. Jeez, Frank thought. Probably not in now.
The deadbolt turned and the door opened as wide as the chain lock allowed. Red eyes peered through the opening, fingers trembled along the door’s edge. “Yes?" the voice quavered, barely audible.
Something was wrong, Frank thought. This did not seem like the animal Janssen had fussed about or the hollering neighbor he himself had wished gone. He could almost taste the young man's timidity. This, it occurred to Frank, is one of the “least of these" types Jesus wanted his brethren treating with kid gloves. Dare he tell this wretch he'd been making crude noises? That a complaint had been lodged? Poor kid would likely slap fig leafs over all his orifices. Maybe die of suffocation.
“Everything all right in there?" Frank asked, just to break the ice.
“Fine," Doid gasped, sounding panic-stricken. Like Frank was torturing him by forcing an answer to the inane question.
“That's great," said Frank. “Excellent. Now, look. Just . . . try to keep it down at night, son," the super mumbled, nodded and walked away.
Technically, he'd addressed the problem. Maybe that'd be enough. If necessary, he'd follow up. Maybe in a day or two the new tenant would feel more at home, better equipped to handle constructive criticism and he, Frank, could be more direct. And, it was always possible Jesus would intervene. He doubted Janssen, who rarely left his third-floor apartment after dark, would be bothered by Doid anytime soon. As for himself, he'd heard farmers visiting big cities can't sleep due to the noise, and city people can't handle country quiet. Takes getting used to, he told himself and, for the time being, was glad he had the widow in 3-D. ~ In Apartment 3-C, Alvin Janssen woke from a sound sleep, rolled out of bed, padded to the bathroom.
Man complains about another man to a third man, he reflected while emptying his bladder, second man's got a right to know who's talking about him. First man's got an obligation to tell that second man to his face. Doesn't matter if the second man gets mad. First man's responsible for saying what needs saying.
This was going to be a fine morning for Alvin Janssen. He hadn't yet poured Cheerios into his bowl and he already had a mission lined up. Doid would likely slip off to work soon, and Alvin wouldn't abide waiting till day's end. Breakfast could wait. He washed his face, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, dressed quickly and descended with dignity to the first floor.
He knew he was being generous in assuming the new tenant worked. These days, many did not. The nation was drowning in a sea of loafers and freeloaders. Couple years from now, the phrase well-deserved retirement would mean nothing. This new tenant had better not be a freeloader. Alvin reached 1-B and began, once again, pounding on the door.
The door creaked open as far as the chain lock allowed. “Yes," a voice whispered from inside.
“Janssen. Alvin Janssen from 3-C. You know, a man's got a right to know who's been talking against him. That was me sent the super over last night."
The chain rattled slightly but the door opened no wider. Alvin thought the man inside might be trembling. He felt momentarily transported back to the days when he could turn seventh grade bullies into momma's boys. He stood ramrod straight and explained. “A man moves into an apartment building, he's got to behave like a human being; respect other people's needs for sleep. People have the right to expect civilized behavior."
The chain rattled more. Alvin liked how this was going. “I don't know who you are or where you come from son, but the way you hoot and holler and break wind at night? That's just wrong. Live and let live's what I say. But live decent. Understand?"
“Yes," squeaked the voice and the door closed softly.
Alvin Janssen turned and headed back to 3-C. ~ In Apartment 1-B, Henry Doid slumped behind his closed door, trying to calm down and think clearly. He'd been taken by surprise, was all. He suspected a person might have a legal right to dream, snore and even fart inside his own rental unit. But, who was he kidding? There wasn't a litigious bone in his body. Bottom line? He'd been an idiot. Had nearly convinced himself that, as an adult, he was safe from ridicule. Thought he'd achieved anonymity at work and invisibility in this tenement but he'd been wrong. He'd gotten sloppy. Outed, apparently, by his own dreams and digestive problems. The old man's tirade, coming out of nowhere, unsettled him more than the daily de-pantsings he'd learned to expect back in high school.
This situation sucked severely. He'd have to move. Maybe find a place catering to the deaf, dumb and blind. He certainly couldn't stay here calling attention to his ugliness. ~ Hours later, Frank Lopes found keys to Apartment 1-B in his mailbox. The keys were taped to a note: “Sorry for the noise. Gone now. Fresh milk in the fridge for you or the next tenant." Praise Jesus, thought the super. Mission accomplished.
That night Frank couldn't sleep. Not in his bed, not in the widow's. Window air conditioning units were no match for this heat and he was covered with sweat. Worse, his arms, chest and legs itched. He worried bed bugs had moved in, the karmic bill for attempting to decimate the tenement's cicada population that afternoon.
He'd had no regrets while dousing the grounds with chemicals. As far as he could tell the cicadas brought nothing but noise and shrub damage to the world. He'd always appreciated the silence that came at the end of their cyclical invasions. Never worried about where they hid and how they passed their time in the silent years.
Frank was preoccupied now, trying to think through the ramifications of Doid's departure. The young man would lose his deposit for certain. But where could a kid like that go? Where was he sleeping now? Was he shouting out his questions inside a more tolerant tenement? Had he been beaten and robbed by homeless vagrants? Had he, God forbid, elected to silence himself by, say, jumping off a bridge?
Frank had to be right about the trumpet. There was no point having a horn if you weren't going to toot it. Horns had to toot, parrots had to squawk, cicadas needed to come out of wherever they'd been hiding and make a ruckus. Shoot. Tenants needed to fuss and supers needed to serve the greater good. That, he kept telling himself, was the way the world worked.
He still couldn't sleep, still rolled around in bed sweating, itching, and scratching, wondering if he'd somehow missed the point of the young tenant's question. An image of Doid—beaked, feathered, encaged and plummeting from three flights up—flashed in Frank's mind.
Then the itch was in his throat.
Bob Shar's stories have appeared in Blue Lake Review, Stoneboat, 2 Bridges Review, Barge Journal, South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. He is a former factory worker, newspaperman, burned-out little magazine founder/editor/publisher (The Crescent Review, 1983-1988), disreputable bar mitzvah instructor and retired librarian living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.