Philip opened the door to a carpeted hallway reeking of marijuana. To his right, at the base of the door to apartment fifteen, smoke trickled out. Behind the door, a woman shouted, “You little fucker!” syllables stretched to breaking. She screamed the words again and a third time. Philip stepped toward the tarnished brass numeral fifteen, the five having rotated on its single screw to italic. He made a fist. Control yourself. Leave my daughter alone. His knuckles barely sounded on the wood. Behind him, a latch fell. He stepped back, pivoted as the door swung open. Giselle’s face was flushed, tear streaked.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Listening, that’s all,” he said, putting his arms around his daughter. “It’s okay. It’s okay…” He eased her back into her apartment, shut the door, locked the deadbolt.
“I wasn’t exaggerating, was I, dad? She’s just crazy.”
“Who is she yelling at?”
“Her sons. One or the other. Both. I don’t know. She never stops.” Giselle uncoupled, pushed the damp brown hairs from her forehead and cheeks. She gazed at the door. “Did you smell it?”
“Couldn’t miss it.”
“All day long. And beer. I hear her throwing the empty cans against the wall.”
“You shouldn’t have to—”
“She hits them, the boys. Hits them hard.” Giselle took several deep breaths. “I’m sorry, Dad. I know it’s late. I was just getting so afraid, and Ben’s asleep. I don’t know how he can with all her noise, but somehow he sleeps.”
“She’s been like that all evening?”
Giselle nodded, shifting her gaze from the door.
“I’m sorry that I’m such a baby.”
“No, no. That woman, anyone would… Did you call the police?” he asked.
Giselle shook her head.
“You should have.”
“I just think—”
“They don’t do anything. They can’t do anything. The police, the apartment manager, social services. No one can do anything.”
“The manager can’t just evict?”
“He says she’s done nothing to break the lease.”
She licked her lips. “I should check on Ben. He thinks she’s going to break through the wall, pull him out of his bed, make him one of her own. Why should a four-year-old have to go through that?”
“Do you want to stay the night with me?” Philip asked. “I’ll carry Ben to the car. I’ll bet he won’t wake up.”
“How can I do that? I have to be in the office at eight. Ben has to go to pre-school. You’ve got work to do, too, I’m sure. You can’t…”
The problem with Ms. Abadjian had been going on since the woman moved in, a year now. It seemed that the manager could have the family evicted, for all three neighbors sharing the unit had made numerous complaints. But the manager said he was helpless. If Ms. Abadjian didn’t pay the rent, that was one thing, but short of her burning down her apartment, which the neighbors agreed she might do, the manager couldn’t end her lease. It was impossible to evict a single mother with two kids, even if she were abusive to her children. The courts would side with her against the landlord. The police had been out a dozen times, responding to the neighbors’ complaints that she was disturbing the peace, and also to question her two sons, aged eleven and thirteen, who had been accused numerous times of petty thefts and tagging. Youth services had visited, but apparently there was nothing the agency could do until—
“Until she kills one of them,” Giselle had said and sincerely believed it would come to that. At first all three neighbors, had spoken to her, asked her politely if she could not shout so much. It was waking up the children, frightening them. The woman’s tirades jarred the Woli’s six-month-old from sleep. Ben feared to walk into the hallway. Ms. Abadjian listened, nodded and changed nothing. The neighbors had confronted her numerous times, and she would always agree to tone things down (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry), but nothing changed. When she encountered Giselle on the steps, she would rant about her two boys, how uncontrollable they were, try to elicit sympathy; but Giselle was certain that it was the mother’s behavior that drove the boys to their bad behavior. His daughter had learned that the younger boy’s middle school had labeled him emotionally disturbed. Certainly all three deserved the label. The brothers fought constantly, not playful battles but punching, biting, kicking. She could not take Ben out to the complex’s pool when the brothers were there. She was sure that if they caught Ben alone, they’d hurt him. The only solution was for Giselle to move out. She refused. The commute to work was too easy. Apartments were difficult to come by. How could she let a crazy woman like that drive her out?
“Do you want something? A drink or something?” asked Giselle.
“A coffee. A beer, maybe. Do you have any left?”
“There might be one. I think you left one from the last time.”
As Giselle checked on Ben, Philip opened the refrigerator, whose light was out. He found the solitary beer in the shadow of some ancient yogurts. He popped the top, took a sip. Once or twice a month the neighbor would push Giselle over the edge. Near hysteria, she could not be on her own. His presence calmed his daughter, as naturally it would. At least she and Ben were physically safe while he was there. The shouting would eventually die down. The neighbor would sleep, or more accurately, pass out. In the morning the unit awoke to the sons fighting, fighting over something, anything. There was a father somewhere, an ex-husband. Someone paid her rent. She didn’t have an outside job.
There was no solution.
Money, Philip supposed. If he landed another regular role on a TV series, he would be able to help Giselle with the rent at another place. But he wondered if she would move even then. Well, why did his daughter have to move? What right did that woman have to drive people out of their homes?
Giselle returned. “He’s okay.” She exhaled sharply. “That’s better. My heart was beating so hard. I just needed someone… You found the beer?”
Philip raised the can.
“I’ll have to buy some.”
“One is plenty.”
“So, you’re in a new play?” Giselle asked.
“Old play. Hamlet.”
“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” asked his daughter brightly.
“Absolutely. A major role. Anyway, I’ve played Hamlet enough.”
Giselle smiled. “Ben was student of the month in his class. He’s a good sharer.”
“I was thinking of taking him to miniature golf this weekend.”
“Umm, maybe. You don’t really swing those golf clubs, do you?”
“Just a little tap.” Philip tapped his beer can.
“You know how I am,” said Giselle.
Philip smiled. Yes, he knew. His daughter was instinctively cautious and when it came to Ben, vigilant to the point of paranoia. The neighbor offered a perfect example of the dangers the world held for her son.
“So how is the job?” he asked.
They talked about her job for a while, then the subject turned to her ex. Ben’s father, a computer games designer, had moved north a year ago. Philip liked Ron, an easy-going fellow. It was a shame the marriage had failed, and neither party could exactly put their finger on why. Giselle reported that Ron was fine, dating, in fact. Philip didn’t ask Giselle if she were seeing anyone. That was a certain path to tears.
They spoke for thirty minutes without any further screams or banging from the neighbor. Midnight now, Giselle yawned, not bothering to cover her mouth. When she wanted to sleep she didn’t hide it. Things were calm again.
He kissed his daughter good night and listened as she double bolted the door. Make sure the outer door is closed, she instructed him. He pulled it twice, found it secure, and then realized that he was still inside the unit, not outside. Christ.
Philip turned to Ms. Abadjian’s door. He knocked softly, not expecting an answer. Outside the building, a bird screeched several times—Philip knocked again, marginally harder. He envisioned Ms. Abadjian’s slumped on the couch, between her weighty legs a beer can, sloshing onto her bathrobe, a joint down to a nub burning her lips. The door was answered by a gaunt teenage boy in a food-stained T-shirt.
“Sorry to bother you. “I’m—” he gestured toward Giselle’s door. “—your neighbor’s father.” The boy stared coolly, fingering a loop of his low-slung pants. “Is your mother awake?”
“What for?” asked he boy.
“I just—I want to speak with her.”
The boy’s eyes were dark and pouched like an old man’s. Deeper in the apartment, a video game beeped. “Hey, get the fuck away from that!” shouted the boy, turning away from Philip and dashing back into the apartment, his steps thunderous.
Philip heard the boy’s voice. “You got a visitor.”
To his surprise, Ms. Abadjian was of medium height, slender, fine boned, dressed in jeans and blouse. Only her eyes conformed to his expectation: hollowed out, unsettled brown eyes, glancing down at his hands uncertainly as if he might hold a flower or a knife. Behind her lay a disordered living room, open pizza boxes, crushed soft-drink cans, gossip magazines stuffed between the cushions of a grease-stained sofa, arms weighted with glass ash trays won twenty years ago at carnival.
“Yes?” she asked.
“I’m Giselle’s father.”
“Ah, Giselle’s father, the actor. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
He spoke before the conversation veered. “It’s just—this can’t go on.
“This? What is this? Explain, please”
“The shouting, the fighting.”
“It’s my sons. You don’t know—”
“Your sons are not my daughter’s problem.”
“Then—you’ve got to move out.”
“Find another apartment.”
She tilted her head sideways and looked up as if considering the idea.
“I hate spiders.” She pointed at the door’s frame.
A daddy long leg poised above them.
“Please kill it,” she said. “Quick, before it gets into the house.”
Philip watched the harmless spider flex its threadlike legs. Ms. Abadjian walked to the couch, grabbed one of her magazines and returned. She handed the glossy publication to Philip.
“With this. Please. ”
Philip took the magazine, rolled it into a cylinder and took aim.
“Thank you,” said Ms. Abadjian.
He tried to return the magazine to her, but she made a face and gestured for him to drop it in the hallway.
“You’re making my daughter’s life hell,” said Philip.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m—“
“Stop it. That’s nonsense. If you were really sorry, you’d move.”
“I pay my rent. I have a right to be here.”
“You don’t have the right to torment your neighbors.”
Philip held up the magazine as if to swat the ignoble mouth.
From the apartment’s interior came a violent snore.
“I’m not moving,” said Ms. Abadjian.
“Yes, you are.” For twenty seconds Philip fixed her with a dreadful, unblinking stare, one that had brought a hundred criminals to justice. Ms. Abadjian’s face tightened. She backed into her living room and picked up one of the pizza boxes. She closed the lid.
Do you have a pen?” she asked, holding out the pizza box. “Would you sign this for me?”
As Philip returned to his car one of a group of loitering young people asked, “Johnny Sinead, right?”
“Come on, Johnny, do it,” squealed another.
Philip dropped the spent magazine in the gutter. He turned to his audience. “Fuck with my cousin, I’ll fuck with you.”
The young people applauded.
From behind a fence a dog barked diligently.