DUMBWAITER by Adalena Kavanagh

The building was so old it didn’t have an elevator. There was a dumbwaiter in the apartment but it had been nailed shut and painted over many years before. When we first looked at the apartment the manager told us that the previous tenant, Mr. Reese, had lived in the apartment for forty-two years. He’d raised a family, watched his wife die of cancer fifteen years prior, seen the neighborhood’s complexion change, twice, and then—the manager assured us this—he died peacefully in hospice care. His sons lived in California and Florida, so they didn’t want the hassle of subletting the apartment and decided to turn the lease back over to the landlord.

Frank asked the manager what the original rent had been and the manager laughed and said, “You don’t want to know. It’ll make you want to kill yourself.”

In that first visit it was clear just how lived-in the apartment was. At some point the Reese family had glued large mirrored tiles onto the living room wall that faced the windows overlooking the central courtyard. The mirrored wall gave the room a desperate 1970s air. The original fixtures and ornamental moldings had grown rounded and fat after years of sloppy paint jobs.

The manager spread his arms out. “Hardwood floors stripped and varnished. Walls repaired. Outlets grounded. A fresh coat of paint. By the time you move in it’ll be the deal of the century.” He looked very pleased with himself and curled his lip when he smiled so that three teeth showed, the middle one much whiter than the ones to the left and right of it. Though I was distracted by the man’s tooth I decided to trust him.

Frank asked him about the other tenants in the building. The manager’s answer was swift and confident. “Families. Lots of families. Quiet. No problems. This is a nice building with nice people in it.”

We thought we were getting a deal. We knew we were getting a deal—three bedrooms for $2,100 a month, in Manhattan. All the way uptown but we had that NY, NY address and I was getting the home office I needed. The extra bedroom could be easily converted into a nursery as soon as Frank and I decided it was time.

We said we’d take it. I squeezed Frank’s hand and as we walked out into the hall I patted the dumbwaiter door. I felt nostalgic for a time I hadn’t actually lived through.

When we moved in we could still smell the paint but the walls were dry. There was new cabinetry in the kitchen and bathroom but I knew it was cheap. I didn’t say anything though because this wasn’t going to be our home forever. Certainly not somewhere we’d live for forty-two years but it was a start. Frank and I had only been married for three years.

The manager had been right. There were lots of families, but he was wrong about the quiet. One couple lived on the fifth floor and they had newborn twins. Without an elevator the poor woman had to strap one baby to her chest and the other to her back. I saw her making her way down the stairs at a snail’s pace. She moved like she was balancing a heavy sack on her head. I joked to Frank that if we had twins the only thing that would stop me from tossing them into a doggy carrier would be polite society. Seeing the woman and her squirming babies made me think, not it, not it, not it, like we were playing a game of tag and through cunning and swiftness I had managed not to be captured yet. I didn’t mention this to Frank.

Frank said his commute was perfect. Long enough to read a chapter in whatever book he was reading, but not so long that it felt like a schlepp.

Though I could have slept in, I woke up when Frank did. While he showered I made breakfast. Instead of taking a coffee break as soon as Frank went out the door with a peck on the cheek from me, I pulled on my running clothes and went for a run along the greenway that runs up and down Manhattan. In all types of weather I ran past the lighthouse underneath the great steel bridge and took comfort in its bulk and in my routine.

Before the move Frank had grown impatient with my late hours at the office. He always said, “What could you possibly be doing there so late?”

I’d been working for my firm for eight years before I met Frank. When he questioned my late hours the third time I realized he was jealous, maybe even afraid I was having an affair. I wondered if he would be more upset if I had a lover or if he learned the truth—my work comes first. Always.

After showering and eating a cup of yogurt I logged on and began my workday in earnest. Sometimes I played music but often I left it off and the daily sounds were the clicking keyboard, and the street sounds from below.

My firm suggested I work from home to save costs. When the HR rep explained what working from home entailed she said, “The thing is to create a routine and respect the limits of your workday.” After a beat she joked, “Or else you’ll go insane.”

I was trying to learn how to turn it off when Frank came home. The woman was right—routine is key.

Maybe Frank would understand better if I could explain my work but I can’t.

In my work we don’t leave an electronic trail if we can. In the old days we’d use typewriters and lock up our ribbons in steel cases, but now we run in-house software that encrypts our electronic files. Non-classified documents come to me by courier, and I go into the office to work with more sensitive documents.

Sometimes I miss my cubicle.

I do research, which can be done at home, but because of its sensitive nature, when a stranger asks me what I do—a question you can’t avoid in New York City—I tell him that I’m a freelance writer. Most people just nod knowingly, already losing interest, but to the ones who continue to pepper me with questions I make an apologetic gesture and say I write for trade journals nobody reads. This quells any curiosity.

I had my reference books out and was getting lost in the hunt for facts. Sometimes I think of these searches I do as balls of string that I have to somehow untangle. Each thread of the inquiry leads me to another knot I have to work through, until I reach the final snare, the final puzzle, and then everything is unraveled and clear. Frank says I get into a trance, which is why I set an alarm at regular 45-minute intervals so I remember to eat and go to the bathroom. I’ve heard rumors that some of my more dedicated colleagues rely on adult diapers.

I was running my finger down a Manhattan residential phone book from 1987. The time of this incident was 2011 so this gives you some idea about the resources my firm keeps available to us researchers—we’ve been subscribing to the telephone directories of major American cities going back to when telephone books were first produced. Renting the space to house telephone books in addition to all the other types of reference materials we require is costly and inefficient. So it’s now some poor temp’s job to digitize the lot. Once that project is completed the firm will then store the collection in temperature-controlled rooms in upstate New York. Just in case.

Most of the inessential staff has been moved offsite so that our once floor-through office has been reduced in size by half. Management hasn’t said this in so many words, but my closest colleagues, the ones who made it through the first round of layoffs, think that this new project we’re working on is an audition to keep our jobs.

A few weeks after the layoffs I received a memo from my supervisor’s superior. It was a warning. Somehow I had made a mistake in my research and written a report on a man with the exact same first, middle and last name as the one I had been assigned, but our target was the father, not the son. In my research I had missed that the son had dropped the “junior” from his name. My mistake had cost us time. I would not be so careless again.

I was deep in the K’s for 1987 Manhattan when my alarm went off. I looked up. I’d bought a strong protective case for my otherwise slim phone because I have hurled many phones across the room and my firm began to question my requests for replacements.

I was in that bewildered state where half my thoughts were stuck in my quest—this time it was the search for an address of a man whose last name contained the letters NAGH but no U. I had been chanting that to myself the entire time. Begins with a K but no U. Which should have narrowed my search considerably but I’d already stalked 1999-1988 and was working my way back without any luck so far. The courier had given me a dirty look when he delivered all those telephone directories, but I’ve gotten used to his looks. The firm is somewhere in 2001 in the digitization project, and has yet to break through the 1990s and 1980s which has necessitated these heavy deliveries. I wondered who signed off on the digitization plan. One person is doing the earliest books, the other the newest books, and they’ll meet in the middle somewhere. I would have suggested that the more recent past was more crucial to our work but, oh well, not my problem.

When the alarm went off I had to stop what I was doing because I’d placed my phone across the room. Instead of hurling it against the wall I just cursed and went to turn it off. I took a moment to assess my needs. Was I thirsty? No. Did I have to use the bathroom? No. Was I hungry? I could eat a snack. So I got up and went into the kitchen. I was sitting at the table eating an apple—another rule, no eating and working at the same time. I scheduled these short breaks; otherwise, my neck and back got all cramped up. Once I’d thrown away the core, I lay down on my yoga mat and worked my way through a series of stretches.

I was stretching when I finally heard drips coming from the bathroom. I stood up and investigated. There was a substantial leak over our bathroom sink. I put shoes on and ran upstairs hoping someone was home. A young man, someone who could have been in high school, opened the door even though it was only 12:45pm. I told him there was a leak and asked him to check things on his end. Instead of going back into the apartment to check out his bathroom he looked at me like I was telling him old news. “Yeah. Call the super. It’s the pipes. They leak all the time.” I asked him if this had been a problem before we moved in. He nodded, his eyes looking droopy like he was ready for a nap. “For years. Call the super.”

I thanked him and went downstairs. I called the super and he came upstairs and tried to look surprised when he saw my ceiling. When I asked him if this leaking had been a problem before we’d moved in he opened his mouth but didn’t say anything. When I raised my eyebrows to prod him to speak he stammered. “They told me they fixed the problem when they fixed up the apartment. I’ll call the plumber and see what we can do.”

The plumber came. There was plenty of banging and clanking from the apartment above and below and while the leak had stopped, when I looked up at the ceiling I could swear it was bulging a bit. I told Frank to take a look at it and he got up on the stepladder and said that it felt damp. So we called the super and he called the plumber and that was a pattern that was well established by the time we’d been living in the apartment for seven months. At least once a month the ceiling sprang a leak.

There is this empty tinny quality that cell phones have that cannot match the deep vibrations that an old-fashioned landline telephone is capable of sending out through an apartment. I know there are ring tones made to sound like an old telephone but the effect is not the same. The digital version you hear with your ear, the analog version you hear with your whole body. Our neighbors received calls on their landlines all the time, which was odd, and annoying. I could hear the rings through the floors, the walls, and the ceiling.

We heard so many things in the apartment. One time Frank and I had an argument because we heard sex sounds coming from the apartment below us. Frank insisted that the man below us must have brought a date home but I insisted that he was just watching pornography.

Sometimes the wind whistled in the stairwell. I sent Frank up to make sure the door to the roof was locked. Each time he returned and said, “Locked tight.”

They say old houses settle and creak but so do old apartment buildings. Maybe everyone was used to the hissing, clanking radiators and the creaky floors but instead of feeling comforted by the sounds of the human hive I felt wary. Who were these people? Why had we trusted them?

When I first heard the dumbwaiter mechanism I was in my office working in silence. I looked up from my report and listened. There was a whining sound and an electrical hum that I could feel in my head and my neck. I stood up to hear better and when I looked out the window I noticed an absence but wasn’t sure what it was until the young man who usually spent the day standing outside the building leaning against his car returned to resume his position. This was a corner boy. Like me and my daily runs past the little red lighthouse in all kinds of weather, this young man stood outside the building seemingly doing nothing every day, in all but the worst weather.

At first the noise was intermittent, but within a day it was near constant. Each time I looked out the window I saw that Carl, the young man who lived on the fifth floor with his mother and his grandmother, had disappeared into the back alley only to return not long after.

That night I tried to tell Frank about the noises but he just said I should go get my ears checked because he didn’t hear anything. I told him I was too busy. The deadline for our project was fast approaching and there were still too many loose ends. I couldn’t finish my report. The noise was worse when I was alone working, deep in concentration, making my way through each new puzzle.

I asked Frank what he thought Carl did outside all day. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t want to make any assumptions,” he said.

I made plenty of assumptions. When I heard the noise I ran to put my ear against the dumbwaiter door. I could feel the vibrations coming from the shaft. Something was definitely moving inside and I began to feel confident that our Carl, or perhaps someone above Carl in whatever organization he was affiliated with, had gotten the idea to rig up the old dumbwaiter system to transport drugs. Far-fetched? Possibly. Brilliant? That’s what I thought. And I congratulated myself for figuring it out.

When Frank and I had looked at the apartment we hadn’t given much thought to the neighborhood. It had seemed nice enough. Diverse enough. Convenient enough. Several waves of gentrification had already crashed through the area so we felt confident that the worst of the 1980s drug trade had moved east and south of us. Carl had not been standing watch outside the building when we signed the lease. Not that Carl ever gave us any problems aside from the few times he was joined outside by a few friends who drank big glass bottles of beer out of brown paper bags and talked too loudly. Frank and I weren’t the kind of people who called the cops just because of a little noise.

The next night Frank announced that his firm was sending him to Macau for a few days. I teased Frank because his childhood Cantonese is slangy and just above baby talk—certainly not business appropriate. He teased me back though, saying my Mandarin is textbook Chinese. Which is true. I learned the language in college, not at my grandmother’s knee the way Frank had. It has helped me in my work, though. Sometimes I have to make phone calls to Taiwan and China on behalf of my firm. I’m always complimented and told I sound Chinese. They assume I’m white because I’m American. I let them think whatever they want to. When I make these phone calls I always use an alias. It’s company policy.

Macau has a law that states that legal documents cannot be removed from the island, not even electronically. Frank had to travel to the other side of the world to sit at a computer in Macau and do the work onsite even with the wondrous technological advances that have made that sort of necessity obsolete. I was glad he was going.

I hadn’t told Frank that I was afraid that the firm was weeding us out and that this project was a test. He would have just encouraged me to quit. He was making enough money to support us but my work has never been about the money.

I had been breaking all of my rules and worked late into the night and sometimes I slept in the guest bedroom so I wouldn’t disturb Frank with my tossing and turning. Without his wary eye trained on me I felt I could concentrate and make the final push and untangle all the threads of the inquiry before the deadline.

When I joined him on the morning he was set to leave, dead-eyed, he said he didn’t like me pushing myself so hard.

“It’s just this project,” I said. “It’s important.”

“It’s always some project,” he said. “What about us?”

Privately I thought, what about us, but to Frank I said, “I’m sorry.”

When Frank left he kissed me and then held my face in his hands. He forced me to look in his eyes and said, “Make sure you sleep.”

It was the first time I’d made myself available to his touch in a long time. His hands felt like a stranger’s hands.

I told him not to worry and he hesitated, as if he was about to call off his trip. Then he asked, “Are you still hearing those noises?” From the tone of his voice I could tell that he wanted me to say no.

So, I lied. I said I was fine.

He eyed me carefully, kissed my forehead again, and was out the door.

One time my mother casually mentioned that when she was a young woman, before she immigrated, a baby spirit had possessed her. It wasn’t a euphemism for an unwanted pregnancy. She truly believed that a minor spirit had taken hold of her. It was the kind of odd thing my mother sometimes said, all matter of fact, without any hint of self-consciousness. I chose to take it in stride, like the time she told me about having a tapeworm. I listened to her story without questioning her or questioning her sanity. It was easier to just humor her. When Frank left I could tell that this was the approach he was taking with me. I could tell he was humoring me and I let him.

The day before Frank was due to return I sat in my office poring over a New York City property map from 1967 when the noise became unbearable. On top of that, the bathroom ceiling was leaking again, but I was sick of dealing with it. I made a decision. I was going to open up the dumbwaiter door and investigate. Frank wouldn’t be able to chide me out of it. I was going to find out once and for all if my hypothesis was correct.

I looked at the dumbwaiter door closely. I had thought it was nailed shut but there were screws in place and of course many layers of paint. I’d have to buy a chisel to break through the paint and pry the door open after I managed to loosen the screws. I passed Carl on the street and he nodded at me as I made my way to the hardware store. On my return trip Carl was with a friend and the friend pointed at the heavy chisel in my hand and asked, “What you gonna do with that?”

“Everyone needs a weapon,” I answered.

I was a little apprehensive about what lay behind the dumbwaiter door. Though an exterminator came and sprayed the apartments every couple of months I was sure there were mice in the walls. Most buildings in New York have some cockroaches even though I hadn’t seen any in our apartment—something to be grateful for.

When I used our power drill to loosen the screws and managed to chip the paint away from the seams of the door I took a deep breath. I was sweaty and suddenly nervous. My eyes burned from lack of sleep. Even if I knew for sure that someone was using the dumbwaiter what would I do then? I certainly wasn’t going to call the police and report my suspicions about Carl. That was none of my business.

I wanted to be sure. I was desperate to know for sure. So I grasped the handle and tugged. I had to put one foot against the wall and lean my body back until the door finally gave. When it did I crashed against the opposite wall and stared into the shaft.

I could have cried.

It was empty. Completely empty. Where there should have been woven steel cables there was nothing. A cold draft came out of the shaft but that was it. I had expected a foul odor but instead, when I got up the courage to move toward the opening and peer in with a flashlight, it smelled like dry plaster and nothing else. I put my hand into the void and felt goose bumps travel up and down my body because the change in temperature was so drastic. Still, there was nothing there. No mechanism. I pulled my hand out and leaned my head in and listened. The noises were as loud as ever but there was nothing there.

I decided to pay another visit to my neighbors upstairs and downstairs. I tried to come off as friendly, not nagging and intrusive. I asked the mother of the boy upstairs if she was using some type of machine because there was a weird noise in my apartment. I was deliberately vague, trying to come off like this was just a minor problem, but the truth is I had to know where the noises were coming from. She looked at me with a slight frown on her face. I could see what she was thinking. Was I trying to make trouble for her? She had her hair done up in curlers and wrapped in a gauzy scarf. I had seen her nip down to the bodega across the street in her curlers so she clearly didn’t care about appearances but she wasn’t sure what to make of me.

“No. We don’t have any machines in here.” Then she paused. “Maybe it’s the video game. Sammy plays that game all the time. Is it too loud? I’ll tell him to turn it down.” I shook my head, no, which made me wince in pain. I had a headache that was a vise around my scalp.

She looked at me and asked, “You alright?”

I told her I was okay and I was sorry to bother her.

As I retreated down the stairs she called out to me, “This building’s so old. It makes all kinds of noise. Just ignore it.”

I turned to look back but she had already closed her door.

I had even worse luck with my downstairs neighbor, the one who Frank finally admitted watched pornography at a very loud volume. He came to the door with his hair slicked back like he’d just taken a shower. I gave him the same spiel. There was a weird noise in my apartment. Was he using some kind of machine? He looked at me for a long time and then shook his head slowly, as if he was deciding what truth to tell.

“Nah. I don’t have any machines. Don’t even have a home computer. Just the TV.” He narrowed his eyes. “Is it too loud? I can turn it down if it’s too loud. Just let me know.”

I was frustrated. These people clearly had no idea what I was talking about but I had to try. “Yeah. No. It’s not the TV. It’s more like a whining and a hum. It’s weird.”

The man chewed on his lip and sucked his teeth. “Sorry. Sometimes the pipes bang when the heat comes on but nothing like that. Maybe it’s your refrigerator. Maybe you should get it checked out.”

Like the woman upstairs he had barely opened his door so that only a sliver of his body appeared. Neither had invited me inside. This is why whenever a crime is committed in New York City the neighbors always say, “He seemed like such a nice man. Quiet. Kept to himself.” It’s because nobody knows the neighbors and everyone is happy to keep it that way.

“I don’t think it’s that but thanks,” I said.

Once it was clear our interview was coming to a close he smiled and said, “Sure. No problem.”

When I returned to my apartment I looked at the mess I had made opening the dumbwaiter door. I was too tired to clean up and I couldn’t face my office and the work that waited to be done.

Since Frank had been away I had been sleeping in the spare guest room—the future nursery. It was the room furthest away from the dumbwaiter. I went inside to lie down and tried to rest. We had painted the bedroom yellow, a neutral color, saying, just in case, but with the pressure from work, the secret fear that I was going to lose my job, the thought of a baby was unbearable. Frank always turned to me when there was a commercial with an adorable baby or puppies in the frame and he smiled and raised his eyebrows as if inviting me to give it a try.

I was so tense no amount of stretching could work out the kinks I felt in my muscles and the ache in my bones. I decided that I wouldn’t bring up moving until our lease was almost up. I would tell Frank that I couldn’t live with a perpetually leaking bathroom ceiling. Each drip punctuated my frustrated thoughts but I ignored them and thought about what I would say to Frank. I would tell him that I didn’t like the neighborhood. I would suggest we try someplace new. Maybe Brooklyn. Maybe Queens.

As I lay on the bed, my head throbbing, my neck tense, the noise buzzed in my ear like an angry insect determined to eat my brains. I just wanted some peace. Some quiet. No more mysteries. I was scared and wished Frank was there to hold my hand.

Anxiety had kept me awake for days but soon exhaustion settled on me like a lead blanket and I slept.

Frank woke me. He shook my shoulder and asked me why there was a mess in the hallway. “Didn’t you hear the leak? The bathroom ceiling’s completely collapsed. The floor’s flooded.”

I hadn’t heard a thing.

When I opened my eyes I knew something was wrong.

“Your face,” Frank said. “Sheila. Your face.”

I reached up and touched the right side. It was numb. When I tried to speak I realized that my mouth didn’t work anymore. Half of my face was completely paralyzed. My ear throbbed, full of the impossible noise, now louder than ever.

At last my horror was fully realized. There was something terribly wrong with me and Frank could finally see it. There was no room to pretend otherwise.

Adalena Kavanagh is a librarian and drummer for psychedelic rock band Early Spring. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Hot Metal Bridge, Kartika Review, and Stumble Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and can be reached at adalenakavanagh.blogspot.com.

“My favorite old thing is the record player. Having to flip a record to the other side gives me a reason to stretch my legs when I’m deep into a story.”

Back to Issue 2: Old Things

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