He damned whoever it was—damned them! Waking him up like this! Oh! He would kill them! Kill them!
Rudely nudged out of a lovely dream, the superintendent’s heavy-lidded eyes opened to the darkness of the bedroom. The first thing he saw was the dully-lit face of the clock on the night table beside the bed telling the time at three o’clock in the morning; then he heard again the insistent, nagging, chiming bell of his front door. He mumbled another curse under his breath. To think that someone could be standing out in the hall ringing his bell at this time of the morning! If he had been more awake he would have been infuriated. He sat up a little and listened, hoping it had been an audile hallucination—some lingering, evanescent part of a dream—only to hear it again, the ting-ting-ting of the doorbell. And then there was a knocking!
He swung his feet out of bed and as he did so his wife, an amorphous form under the sheets in the darkness, stirred. In another moment she asked groggily, “What is it?”
“Someone’s at the door,” he said.
“Oh ....”—with a scratchy, breathy voice, too tired to have any more articulate reaction.
In the darkness he limped into the hallway. All of his adult life he had walked with this limp, the result of a shattered leg caused by a car crash he had been in when a teenager: his left leg was an inch shorter than his right, and even after all these years it sometimes gave him pain. He entered the living room, flicking a switch that turned on a single lamp at the far end of the room. When he reached the door he didn’t open it immediately. One didn’t just open one’s door in New York City, especially when it was three in the morning. For all he knew someone had gotten into the building and was looking to rob an apartment. One of the great benefits of being a superintendent was that he got free rent, but the counterbalancing drawback was that his apartment was located on the ground floor and was consequently a more likely target for any robbers or criminals who happened to get through the front or back door.
“Who is it?” he asked, not without a purposeful, intimidating gruffness.
Through the door he heard the muffled woman’s voice:
“Alex! It’s me! Mrs. Slovitz!”
“Oh, God,” he murmured, and to himself angrily, “What the hell could she want now!”
He unlocked his door and peered out of it, then opened it more widely. Standing there in the bright fluorescent light of the hallway was one of the tenants, Mrs. Slovitz. Alex had known the old lady for as long as he had been superintendent of the building—almost ten years—and had during that time helped her with any number of things; but especially after she had gotten sick she had begun to pester him with irritatingly petty requests, such as asking him to change a light bulb or to take out her trash, or she would complain about the heat not being on (when it was) or about a neighbor who was “making noise,” though the only noises he made were the unwitting and unavoidable ones of daily life.
She was seventy-eight years old. She suffered the afflictions of unlucky old age: arthritis, scoliosis, high blood pressure, and worst of all an ailing heart. She never felt “good”: always there was pain when she walked, a growing inability to digest food, a general, prostrating exhaustion that required an absolute effort of will to overcome. Over the last few years she had lost a lot of weight and looked skeletal. Her hands shook slightly, as did her head, and she walked with an uncertain, unsteady shuffle, as though she were but a misstep away from toppling over. Her white hair was so thin at the top that her pink scalp showed through it. Her eyes were small, sunken, and surrounded by skin that was somehow pink and tender-looking. When she was not wearing her false teeth, as now, her lips protruded outward and added touch of the hideous to her age-ravaged face. (She had taken down a the mirror in her living room because it had shown her as she was, a small, frail, shriveled old woman—the very image that, in her younger years, she used to turn away from with revulsion.)
She was wearing a jacket over her pajamas and clutched its flaps together at her chest with her bony left hand. Now she was looking at the superintendent with wild urgency.
“Mrs. Slovitz what is it?” he asked.
“There’s someone at my window!”
“There was someone at my window!”
The superintendent’s eyes narrowed on her. “What do you mean, at your window?”
“I was lying in bed,” the old lady said, speaking so fast now that she gulped her air, “and when I looked at the window I saw him!”
“In your bedroom window?”
She nodded, yes, yes, yes, her old, reddened, somehow sunken eyes wider, more frightened than ever.
The superintendent was thinking how unlikely her claim was, for she lived on the sixth floor of a ten story apartment building, and there was no way anyone could be “at” her window. Even if there had been a burglar about, other tenants on other floors would have seen or heard something and called the police, who would have been there in a matter of minutes. He decided at once that she must have been dreaming. He was going to explain this to her, to tell her that she had to be mistaken, when she exclaimed:
“Please, Alex! Could you come up? Please?”
It was the last thing he wanted to do; he barely restrained himself from giving a short-tempered sigh; but as he stood before her he realized how much younger, stronger, taller he was than she—how much more robust a human being—and he suddenly felt sorry for her, for her age, her sickness, her fear as a little old lady who lived alone and would be the last person in the world capable of defending herself against a burglar, if one really tried to break into her apartment, which he highly doubted.
“All right, Mrs. Slovitz. I’ll come up and take a look. Just wait here ... let me get my shoes on ... ”
The superintendent shut the door somewhat—not complete-ly, but just to the point where it touched the jamb—and turned around and went back inside his darkened apartment. He limped his way into his bedroom and went to the closet from which he took out a pair of shoes. He brought these back to the bed with him, sat at the edge of the mattress, and began putting them on. His wife had almost fallen back asleep in the few minutes since he had been gone, but she awoke again when she felt the bed sink as he sat on it, and she asked in a sleep-scratchy voice:
“What is it?”
“Oh ... Mrs. Slovitz ... from the sixth floor ... she said she saw something at her window.”
“I don’t know. It’s all right. Go back to sleep. I’m just gonna go up for a minute.”
“Oh ...”—she let her head fall back into her pillow, and in another second added, “She’s nuts, that old bat.”
He didn’t say anything in return. He agreed with her, but what was the point in mentioning it? He put on his left and then right shoe, tying the laces hastily, loosely, only so that he shouldn’t trip over them, then stood up in the darkness and said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When he went back to the door of his apartment Mrs. Slovitz seemed to be somewhat calmer. She had taken a few steps back from his door. Undoubtedly she had realized how ringing someone’s door at three in the morning was an outrageous imposition. Still clutching her jacket at her chest, she watched the superintendent as he stepped into the hall and turned around to lock his door, and as he did so she said in a pitiably apologetic tone of voice:
“I’m sorry, Alex. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
He turned to her and smiled tightly, artificially; but again her age and frailty aroused his pity, and he said kindly:
“It’s all right, Mrs. Slovitz. No problem. Let’s go.”
Their footsteps echoed in the dead silence of the early morning hallway no longer polluted with the sounds of television sets, radios, and conversation seeping out from nearby apartments. They went to the elevators and took one up to the sixth floor. When they reached it he saw that the door to her apartment was ajar; in her haste to flee she had not bothered closing it. The superintendent rightly interpreted this as another proof of her terror. She would never have left her door open under any conceivable circumstance, for, as he knew, she had become rather paranoid over the last few years, suspicious of everyone and everything.
Once inside, she turned on each light she came to: the overhead light in the short hallway, the one in the kitchen, the lamps in the living room. Alex looked about him. He had been in this apartment any number of times and had always been a little oppressed by its smallness and the cheap furniture that hadn’t been changed in thirty years. A kitchen table, too large for the tiny kitchen, stood in the living room; on it were a bowl containing a few apples and oranges, half a loaf of bread in a plastic bag, a carton of cookies, and a jar of instant coffee. A cup and saucer were already set up in anticipation of the morning’s solitary breakfast. At the far end of the room two dressers bulked catty-cornered. A television was on one of them and on the other were framed photographs ranged in three rows. The largest of these pictures showed a voluptuous, pretty young woman in a one-piece bathing suit smiling widely and carefree as she stood hand on hip before a ’58 Chevrolet. The superintendent had seen that picture before and once had asked Mrs. Slovitz about it, and had been surprised to learn that it was none other than herself. There she was, twenty-four years of age, when youth had been hers, and the joy of life and all the future spread out before her with a beckoning glow of adventure and high romance: when old age was so, so far away, so alien a thing, that it was something she could not even imagine. It made the superintendent sad.
“So where did you see this man?” he asked.
“It wasn’t a man,” she said.
“No? I thought you said you saw someone.”
“Yes, but”—she shook her head—“I don’t know if it was ... a man.”
“You mean you saw a woman?”
She nervously shook her head, no, and averted her eyes from his as though in embarrassment.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
“Well where did you see this ... person?”
“At my bedroom window,” she said, nodding to the little alcove that served as a bedroom in this studio apartment. There, the bed was placed against the wall and took up a third of that small area and faced a single window with curtains that had been pulled apart and were pinned against the wall on either side. Nothing could be seen outside. The glass was black with the night and in its blackness reflected the image of the lit apartment within.
The superintendent went to the window, lifted it and the screen behind, and stuck out his head and looked about. Six floors below he saw, by the light of street lamps, the hedges that ran around the base of the building. Between them and the brick wall was a narrow space of some two feet, and all along that gutter there was nothing to be seen, no movement to be perceived. Then he twisted his whole body somewhat in order to be able to look straight up. Above him jutted the ledges of the windows of the apartments over this one, and beyond them the edge of the roof of the building, which formed a dark border against the night’s sky. Not many of the stars could be seen on account of the ambient light of the street lamps but a half moon shone with bright serenity and shed its yellow light over the sleeping city. Outside everything was silent, still, in that almost magical way it is for only a few hours in the early morning. The superintendent knew that there was no way someone could have been standing on the ledge of this window unless he had rappelled down from the roof, and it was ridiculous to suppose that anyone would have taken the time, effort, and risk to do such a thing. Nor could this ledge have been reached by the fire escape, which abutted the living room window and was twelve feet away. He pulled himself back into the apartment, closing the screen and then closing and locking the window.
“There’s nothing out there,” he said, turning to the old lady.
“Well there was !”
“I don’t see how there could be. There’s no place for someone to get onto the ledge from.”
“It wasn’t a person,” she said.
The superintendent tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
“It was ... like a person. But it wasn’t.”
He continued to watch her, curiously, expectantly.
“I only saw it for an instant,” she said. “It was like a person, but ... smaller, like a ... child.”
“A child?”—he leaned his head forward a little, his lips faintly curving into a deprecating smile, for he was sure, now, that the old lady was out of her mind or had otherwise led him on a wild goose chase.
Mrs. Slovitz didn’t take offense at his expression because she herself understood how crazy she must have sounded. A part of her had known he would not find anything—certainly that he wouldn’t see what she had seen. She folded her arms against her chest as though she were cold, but really with a chilly sense of frustration, of not knowing what else to do or whom to turn to for help. If earnestness of expression and demeanor could have the power to convince, hers would have left no doubt in his mind about the veracity of her claim as she said:
“I swear to God, Alex, I saw something out there. It couldn’t have been a full-grown person. It was too small. I thought it was a child. But it had large eyes and ... its face was different ... I don’t know exactly how ... it was just standing out there on the ledge, bent over a little and looking in at me and—”—she stopped, for she saw the disapproving, even wondering way he was looking at her now. She knew too how absurd she was sounding. If someone had told her what she was telling him she would not have believed it. Maybe she was going crazy? She folded her arms more tightly against herself as though in defense both against him and against the memory of what she had seen.
“Mrs. Slovitz, you’re on the sixth floor,” the superintendent said. “No one could get up to this window. Even the fire escape isn’t near this window, and if someone had been climbing on the fire escape other people would have heard it—they would have heard something.”
“But it was there. I know what I saw.”
“Mrs. Slovitz”—shaking his head, tiredly—“just think about it. How could anyone get onto that ledge? It’s like ... four inches wide! Can’t happen,” he said, shaking his head. “You must have imagined it. Or maybe you dozed off and were dreaming and thought you saw something. That’s all it was, Mrs. Slovitz—it was just a dream.”
She shook her head decisively as though she knew that that was not true and she would never be convinced of it. But in fact now she was not so sure. Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps (she again thought) she was losing her mind.
“Believe me, it was a dream,” he insisted. “Dreams can be very real. It’s happened to me plenty of times that I’m dozing off and I think I hear or see something that’s not there. It happens to everybody. It’s not something to worry about. Okay? There’s nothing there. I looked. Everything’s fine.”
It was pointless, she knew, to try to convince him he was wrong. He would have had to see it for himself. Gingerly, she glanced at the window and saw that it was as it should be, with nothing visible beyond it but the blackness of the night. But what if it came back? And what was she going to do if it did come back? Would she go down to the superintendent and ring his bell again? Would she call the police? Quite apart from her fear was the miserable knowledge that even if she didn’t see anything at the window again she was so nervous that she would not be able to get to sleep. She went to the window and undid the pins holding aside the curtains, which dropped together.
The superintendent, once again assuring her that everything was all right, turned to leave. He was walking across the living room when she called out:
He stopped, turned to her.
“Can’t you just stay a few minutes?” she asked,
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