The streets are covered in snow. The wind whips harshly, a blizzard’s aftermath, and in the laundry room in the basement of my childhood building, I find a neighbor pulling clothes out of the dryer.
She is distracted when I say hello, stares at me unrecognizingly. But then something clicks and a shaky stream of lucidity pours fourth. She asks after my mother, my wife, the kid. And I ask after Gary, my old babysitter, who used to take me downstairs to their apartment on the C line.
The building has four lines of apartments—A, B, C, and D—and two separate elevators. The C line, facing east, gets the least light. It shares the landing with the D line, which overlooks the river and gets the most. Through a door, down the service hallway, and through another set of doors, and you are on the A-B landing, where I grew up and now return for the holidays.
In the whole building, these days, there is a slight tension, the old guard and the new. Anyone who has come in during the last decade spent a fortune to be here. The old guard are certainly not have-nots, but they come from a different world. They march with dignified postures in and out of the lobby, nodding to the doormen, almost indignant at what their apartments are worth, the strain of the contradiction playing faintly on their faces.
Do the kids in the building today still wander from apartment to apartment? It used to happen a lot. I remember one night in Gary’s apartment, seated under a single lightbulb toward which rose, gleaming, a trombone held by his older brother, who was for some reason bald at a young age. The sound was honking, magnificent. The light glinted on his head and off the beautiful burnished gold of the trombone. It hadn’t occurred to me, then, that Gary was trying to keep me entertained. I merely felt swept along on a strange adventure through the building.
Now, his mother tells me, Gary is well but her older son, who was sixty, died. “He had a strangulated hernia,” she says. “He refused to go to the doctor. Refused! It got to the point where Gary threatened to fly up from Florida and declare him insane, so we could get him to the doctor. But that wasn’t going to work.”
I offer my condolences.
“I’m learning to live with it,” she says. “We had him cremated, and afterward Gary and I went into the park and spread his ashes in all the places he liked.” She gets the laundry out of the dryer and into her red hand cart. She uses it for groceries, too. She sighs, smiles, leaves.
I stay in the laundry room, absorbing the exquisite warmth of a big old building in winter, the boiler cranking steam up through the floors. I love this heat, and I love this silence and the groans that interrupt it, the mechanical hum. I sit there and think about the pianist. He also lived on the C line, three floors above the trombonist who refused a trip to the doctor.
The pianist was talented. He played gorgeously. He taught students. You could hear him play a perfect phrase, then the uncertain attempt of the student. He would play for long stretches, recitals to an unseen audience of other people in the building. It was an amenity—not one you could include in a real estate brochure, but one that had been a part of the building’s life for so long that you could forget how unusual it was. Gusts of classical piano would rise up the air shaft. The delicate curtain over the kitchen window would tremble with a breeze, the afternoon sun hitting at an angle, and it was as if the notes themselves were undulating the curtain as they entered.
The pianist was fragile, pale, a weak chin, his expression always somewhat aghast. He lived with his parents. The father was slender and serious faced and wore a trench coat and a beret in winter. He got everywhere on a bicycle. The same was true for the pianist, including the beret. The mother was abstract and never seen.
The parents died very quickly, one after the other. The pianist began to get skinny. He got so skinny that he had to tie his belt in a knot. This should have been the first sign: he didn’t buy a new belt, he didn’t make a new notch. He walked down the street drinking apple juice from a bottle, his belt tied up like a shoelace at his waist.
“At least he can still play,” I said. But my mother, who knows about these things, said, “No, no, he’s rushing. There is something unsettled about the way he is playing.”
The notes drifted up the air shaft. They got faster and faster.
One day he showed up at our door. It was dinnertime.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m good. Is there anything I can … ”
“I just wanted to say hi, say hello, and tell you what a wonderful family you have.”
Apparently he did this to other people in the building. His music had wound its way through windows, up the back stairs, and now it was as though he were crawling after it, wanting to meet the listeners. Of course he focused on the famous people. The newspaper columnist, the actors. I was flattered to be on the list of those poked and prodded. There were messages taped onto the front door. At first a short note of appreciation for something I had written. Then something less legible. He said that he was doing his own writing. Stories. Could he show me? In a moment of weakness, on the street, I said yes. Under the door they were shoved, pages dense with tiny script, handled so often they were soft to the touch. Indecipherable lines. Here and there I could make out a word. He. She said.
Finally they declared him insane and managed to get him out of the building on a technicality. He hadn’t signed some necessary document. I got the information from the doorman. The day the moving truck appeared there was a current of outrage and even grief among the old guard. Letters were written to the board. But by then the moving truck had come and gone.
It wasn’t just the C line, there were crazy musicians all over. Seaton, my babysitter, who like me lived on the A line, joined the Hare Krishnas not long after I started college. He had left the building several years earlier, and I was surprised to hear his voice on the phone one evening while home from vacation, suggesting I ship him my drums so he could play them and chant Krishna. He popped up in my life many years later, when he began to write and call. He expressed a love for me that felt unhinged, but I forgave it, because I recalled my own childish love for him, also unhinged. (At six, I had a screaming, crying fight with my mother after realizing that she was paying him to spend time with me. He was my friend, I said, and he didn’t need to be paid.) He makes me CDs—now hard drives—full of music and mails them. His parents sold too soon, before the boom. He lives in Oregon now, with a much older woman, and smokes a lot of pot. His voice, lambent, open, tremulous with mischief and a kind of distanced emotion, has changed not at all. I have learned to take his calls and talk to him with patience. Sometimes I think I am humoring him as one does a person on a ledge threatening to jump, to whom you only want to engage in small talk to reassert the gravity of normal, but other times I think that, whatever the circumstances, I should appreciate the affection.
And what about Ezra, my dear old friend on the D line? He has vanished, though I greet his father warmly whenever I see him. His father, a lovely man, is sly, attractive, rich, on the fifth or sixth of a series of wives or girlfriends, all young and slender. One of them was the first live naked woman I saw. She was putting her hair up when I walked in, two hands behind her head, small breasts, long legs. She smiled at me and slowly pronounced my name in a Southern accent. I fled.
Ezra, when I last saw him, was fraying in an odd way. He had a law degree and an MBA, he told me, but wasn’t working, or was working for his father, it wasn’t clear. He looked swollen and heavy.
Ezra, when he was twelve years old, had loved sitcom theme songs and told me that he ran warm water over his penis in order to masturbate, the implication being that by not using his hands it was more ethical. Sometimes he wet his bed. He made every effort to tape-record the theme song of every single sitcom on television. He had his own archive of those jingles—everything from The Bob Hope Show to The Jeffersons to Mork and Mindy, Lost in Space, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was a particular favorite of his.
And those female babysitters whom I subjugated, whom I made listen with a straight face to all those lies about my adventures in life, street battles, epic quests, romantic entanglements—they, too, have become chimeras down in the laundry room. Gail, thickset in her turtlenecks, short, black, curly hair, sensuous mouth, drifts into view. She wore a devil mask for me and danced around while I attacked her with a sword. She was a theater person and once took me to a play that kept me out too late. My dad had just died. The play was Spider-Man and took place at West Beth, downtown. What I remember now is not the play itself but the long, moiling wait before it started, the dim light, all those kids and grownups sprawled on the floor. We returned to find my mother standing in the foyer with red eyes, tissues balled in her hand. She had called the police. Not the last time this happened, but the last time it wasn’t my fault. All those babysitters have come and gone, but I feel their electric presence in the laundry room.
Winter turns to spring. The weather warms. In April we return. My wife is very pregnant. She wants to have the baby in New York. I moved into the building when I was two weeks old. My son will come here sooner. The pianist, his belt still a knot at his waist, drops by the lobby frequently to discuss his case with the doormen. He is sleeping in the park, I’m told. He unfurls a story that is well worn, like those soft, well-handled pages he used to slip under the door: His piano teacher’s piano teacher’s piano teacher’s piano teacher was Franz Liszt! They took everything out of the apartment and put it in a truck! Files, furniture, the piano! He has sought redress! I give him my best wishes and peer at the plastic bag dangling from his hand. It doesn’t bulge. Yet I can not help imagining it contains his toiletries and other possessions. He is optimistic that he will soon be back.
The laundry room, which had been a hot little engine room during the winter, is now, in spring, a place of coolness and repose. Two white molded chairs against the white wall. The floor painted gray. I take a seat as though in a waiting area. A bus station. It’s a place to collect my thoughts. I close my eyes to clear my head, but the building rocks like a ship and its world comes rushing in.
Thomas Beller’s short story “A Different Kind of Imperfection” is featured on this month’s New Yorker fiction podcast. He is the author, most recently, of a collection of essays, How to Be a Man, and a novel, The Sleep-Over Artist. He teaches creative writing at Tulane University.