The Folks Upstairs
By Juliana Richmond
There was never much occasion to think about the folks upstairs until a few months ago, when the neighbor we’d had for eleven years announced his imminent departure. He’d done that before and then decided to stay so we didn’t pay much attention at first. This time, though, it really happened and our quiet helpful single man moved out. That was just before the holidays, and what with the busyness of the season, I hardly noticed the evidence of new paint and carpeting refurbishing the unit upstairs. Since it was a rental unit, I worried some about who might move in and hoped they’d be quiet working people, gone all day, light on their feet and not given to late-night parties. One day I met Mrs. Thurston, the owner, on the stairs outside and she said,
“We’re trying to get good people. Quiet, like Bill was.” I nodded enthusiastically.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, there was a knock on the door. My husband, Rich, answered and ushered into the room two young Asian men who smiled broadly at me. One stuck out his hand to shake mine saying,
“We just stopped by to introduce ourselves. We’re your new neighbors. I’m Joe Pham and this is my brother Tommy.” Tommy, grinning, shook hands too. The brothers told us Joe worked for a furniture factory and Tommy a student at a nearby Community college.
“Our mother is going to live with us too. She’s coming pretty soon from Vietnam.” Tommy’s smile was as wide as a Jack-O-Lantern’s.
“Does she speak English?” I asked.
“No, only Vietnamese. She wants to find a job. Do you know anyplace she can work?” I shook my head, thinking what a culture shock she would be in for.
They were small-boned young men, probably light on their feet, I thought to myself. The mother would no doubt be small and quiet too. They’d be good neighbors.
I wondered how soon soon was, thinking it could be months before she appeared, but in a week’s time there were rapid steps on the stairs, doorbell chimes echoing into our living room and excited loud laughter and Asian accents drifting downward. Tommy stopped by one day to thrust a box of candy into Rich’s hands.
“Merry Christmas! My mom got here yesterday!”
Rich, returning the favor of the Christmas gift, took homemade cookies upstairs a few days later. When he came back, it was with more information about the new family. Apparently, the father and five sons had come to the U.S. a decade earlier and lived nearby, which explained the good English and established status of the sons. The parents were divorced, but now the mother was here, so the two sons we’d met had been delegated to live with her. Like many of the Vietnamese who came to this country, the family had been relatively affluent in Vietnam, but with small resources here.
“Good people,” Rich said, in one of the few coherent phrases he could manage after his stroke two years before. The stroke had left him with aphasia making it impossible to speak clearly what was on his mind.
The holidays kept us all busy, and I hardly thought about the folks upstairs, except at seven o’clock in the morning when the sound of showering shimmered into our bedroom below, accompanied by the faint dissonance of Asian music. I can get used to it I thought, especially since it doesn’t last long. Indeed, the music carried my thoughts beyond my familiar horizons--the constant interpreting for Rich and trying to understand what he wanted to tell me, the responsibilities I had as President of our Homeowners Association. Not a bad way to start the day, I thought. Complaints did not seem in order for so small a matter.
There were brief encounters. The day I met Mrs. Pham, she and Tommy were wandering about the condominium complex, trying to find the laundry room. During the introductions and greetings, I took in the other woman’s small, neat person, her almost-youthful appearance, conscious that she was equally curious about me. Once I ran upstairs with a plant to brighten her bare entryway. We communicated with smiles and sign language.
In the meantime, new furniture was being added to the basic necessities the boys had started with. One day a huge overstuffed three-piece sofa; another weekend a double bed and mattress, all balanced and carried by the brothers in calculated maneuvers that took into account the turns in the stairs. Groaning sweating, but always smiling, they managed. The day they moved in a large glass dining table top, I thought they had met their nemesis. It must have measured eight feet long, and no amount of mental engineering could alter its rigidity. Finally the problem was solved by Joe backing a small distance into our living room to gain the extra inches needed to turn the corner. Tommy later told me proudly when I ran upstairs to see the table,
“Joe can get all this stuff wholesale, otherwise we couldn’t afford it. It’s good he can do that.” He flicked a crumb from the shining glass tabletop as he spoke. “I can’t do much yet, but if you want a pizza, I can get you one. I work at a pizza parlor at night--Have a paper route in the mornings--school in the daytime. I’m pretty busy!”
Mrs. Pham was busy too. I knew, because the sound of chopping that thudded downward came at unpredictable times, sometimes early in the morning, often later in the afternoon. The first time I heard it, I thought they must be installing a new stove in the kitchen. Only that would explain the persistent loud hammering sound: that, or hanging lots of pictures on all the walls. But a chance remark to my Asian manicurist enlightened me.
“Oh yes. Chop, chop, chop--all the time. They cooking.”
After the chopping, there was running water. On,off,on,off. She’s washing vegetables, I thought. Using lots of water. She seemed to wash dishes the same way. On, off, repeatedly, one dish at a time. Doesn’t she know about the drought, I thought. Years of harboring water had made me almost neurotic on the subject. I saved waste water to irrigate my potted plants; held off on flushing the toilet too often, scolded Rich when he washed the car with too many gallons of water. I flinched every time the water’s rush from upstairs assaulted my ears. I counseled myself to be patient, but my stomach tightened with the effort.
My concerns about Mrs. Pham’s loneliness seemed groundless. Evidently relatives and friends came often to greet her and frequently stayed for meals, evidenced by frenzied chopping and the persistent noise of water rushing down the pipes. I found myself listening for the sound of running water, bracing for the onset and exhaling with relief when it stopped. One night, after a half hour of what I presumed was dishwashing, I interrupted Joe as he took out garbage.
“There seems to be a lot of water running,” I said. “Maybe if your mother used the dishwasher it wouldn’t take so much water.” He looked at me blankly, muttered an o.k. and went upstairs. The water continued to run--by now it was ten o’clock--and I picked up the phone. A young woman’s voice answered. Company, I thought.
“The water’s been running a long time. Is it going to stop soon?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve just finishing up the dishes. I’m almost through.”
I repeated my advice about the dishwasher, but got no response.
After that, things quieted down a bit, though I knew Mrs. Pham was still very busy cooking by the wonderful smells of garlic, curry and spices drifting downward on warm days when the windows were open. Indeed, I suspected that some of the food was being prepared on the balcony above for I could occasionally hear the sound of sizzling fat. But we barbequed on our balcony, didn’t we? If she chose to cook in the early morning, it was no concern of mine. The water continued to run. On, off. On, off. Stay cool, I told myself.
One afternoon, as I tried to read during a quiet time while Rich had a nap, the water started. At first, I was able to concentrate but soon the intermittent pattern ragged my nerves unbearably. I glanced at the clock, resolving to time the duration of the episodes and prove to myself that I was overreacting, but after twenty minutes I could stand it no longer.
“I’ve got to do something,” I said to Rich who had awakened. “I’ll go up and talk with her. Maybe I can make her understand.”
Mrs. Pham opened the door with a smile. At her gesture of invitation to enter, I did so and murmured something about water. She motioned me into the kitchen and pointed to the double sink, one half of which was filled with dirty brown water.
“No good,” she said, looking worried.
No wonder, I thought. She’s probably been trying to unstop the sink--that’s why there’s been so much noise this afternoon. I imagined neither of her boys knew much about plumbing.
“Call your landlord—he’ll get it fixed.” I felt glad to furnish such an easy solution. The advice seemed to cheer her. This is as good a time as any to tell her, I thought.
“I came about the water. Sometimes it drives me crazy.” I put my hands over my ears, shaking my head from side to side. Grabbing the faucet, I turned it on and off; on and off. “Too much, all the time.” Again I shook my head, holding it as before.
“So sorry,” she said, hands clasped prayer-fashion under her chin and giving a slight bow. “So sorry,” she repeated so contritely that I began to wonder why I’d made such a fuss. She seemed so small, half a head shorter than I. I felt like a clumsy giant looking down on her.
Suddenly, she took me by the hand and led me into one of the bedrooms. Pointing to a picture of a beautiful young woman on the wall, she said proudly,
“Me. When I young.”
“Beautiful,” I said. “You were a beautiful young woman.” I looked about the room, at the neatly made double bed, the open closet where a dozen or so dresses were hung.
“Is this your room? It’s very comfortable for you.”
“Poor,” she answered. “Very poor. Not like home.” I remembered what Rich had told me of the family’s background, how well-off they’d been in Vietnam.
We strolled into the living room as I prepared to leave. Mrs. Pham pointed to a new stereo player and switched it on. Dance music poured forth and she said,
“Dance: You like dance?” She held out her arms, swaying to the music and it seemed the only thing to do was to put my hand on her shoulder, fit her small palm into mine. Silently we danced together, our feet moving in time to the music, smiling at one another. I felt less like a giant now and the reason for my visit had faded away.
Since that day, the water seemed less annoying. Maybe it didn’t run as much; perhaps the winter rains had eased my concerns about our falling water table. In any case, Mrs. Pham and I had danced together. What was a little water between friends?