Rachel Galgut was the kind of woman who cleaned spots with her thumb and was annoyed her nose had never stopped growing. In cold weather, she wore a knotted silk scarf over her black hair, to keep in the curl. She dreamed of learning to play the piano but never attempted it because she couldn’t stand the thought of listening to herself play imperfectly. For her age, for any age, Rachel Galgut had excellent hearing.
Her hearing was one of her favorite things to mention in mixed company, “As children, we can hear high noises, as dogs do, but as we age, we lose this ability.” Her audience watched and Rachel continued, “But I never lost it. I can hear these noises. All of them. It is exhausting, you cannot imagine. I can hear everything.”
Her audience considered their glasses and begged to be excused to refill them. Rachel imagined they were rehearing the secret conversations they thought they’d been having all night in the dark corners of the room. She smiled softly and patted her hair. She didn’t like knowing people’s secrets, but it wasn’t her fault she could hear everything everyone said.
When the new neighbors moved in across the hall, Rachel knew it would be the end of the quiet she and her husband had enjoyed for the past six months. The adjacent apartment had been empty ever since Mrs. Soane died suddenly on the kitchen floor. Or perhaps as a result of the kitchen floor. When Rachel heard the noise, she called the paramedics. Death was never a welcome visitor; however, Rachel couldn’t help appreciate the quiet that trailed it. For six months, at least.
In the beginning of April, the family moved in. Rachel heard them. A young couple, the wife a bit shrill, bossing movers around—the kind of woman who saved her best voice for the husband, whom she wasted no time yelling at. The husband, a deeper decibel, did not say much, except at the end of the day when he presumably came home around seven and entered the yelling. And the two children. Small, probably both under the age of five. They sounded like needy hornets.
“Have you met them? Paul asked his wife after she accused the neighbors of sounding like “an earthquake ripping through a menagerie.” Paul was peeling a clementine slowly, thoughtfully. Paul liked to loosen bits of peel and stack the pieces neatly. Then he’d push a sliver of nail under the pith threads and pull them, slowly, thoughtfully, and when their small grips released the fruit, he added them to the stack of peel. Paul always felt engaging with the fruit, being patient around it, made it more edible, even tasteful. Rachel turned up her nose at what she felt was a tedious process and returned her ear to the far wall.
“No, of course not. I don’t want to interrupt. But really, it’s loud over there. Quite loud.”
Paul sniffed in anticipation of the fruit and began to separate the quarters, making a soft, silky, sticky noise. “Go say hello.”
“They had the elevator door propped open … I could hear it beeping. It was beeping all day. When you’ve finished, we must take down the trash.” After looking at him a few seconds she added “You’re making such a mess. All for a bit of orange.”
“Clementine.” Said Paul, but Rachel ignored him.
The next day, Rachel informed Paul the ages of the young children were four and six, possibly six and a half. Paul nodded and sat down at the table with another piece of fruit. “I know this because of their squeaks. Children have different squeaks at different ages. They think we can’t hear—because we can’t. But I can.”
Paul nodded. “Go say hello.” But Rachel didn’t, she had too much to do. And what would she have in common with a young family that constantly yelled?
Two days later, Rachel informed her husband that the couple added another man. “It’s not the first man. I know that. I know his voice, the father. I don’t know who this one is… He’s talking about something fitting … probably a workman.”
“Maybe the six-year-old grew up.”
“Don’t be silly. It is not the same man as before.”
The next day, the other man was gone, but a dog was added. “It’s a terrier, I know that for sure. An Airedale or Cairn. They are similar, you know. I whistled and it heard me, barked and barked. Quite humorous, actually.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re making friends,” Paul said amiably as he settled down with three small clementines. He set two aside and began piercing the third with his thumbnail, peeling back the shiny skin.
Rachel did not accept her husband’s comment in the spirit it was offered. “Don’t be rude. They haven’t said hello to me, either, have they? I find neighborhoods work both ways. Mrs. Soane would have been lying there for goodness knows how long, but had she ever come over to see us? No. Never! What is it with people today? We have such busy lives, no time for each other. But they must have dogs, a child. It is intolerable, intolerable! I should know, I hear everything!”
Rachel paused and then caught something inaudible on the air. “What is that? I hear a groan. A slight, small… There it is again! What is that? It’s coming from the kitchen…” Rachel entered the kitchen and listened intently. “The garbage! Paul, I told you to take it out. It’s too full for the can. What a mess, this place, what a mess! You and your oranges!”
Wrenching the garbage bag out of its container, Rachel moved to her husband, grabbing the neat stack of orange peel and throwing it in the sack before tying the bundle fiercely. “I’m taking down the trash. Something has to get done around here! We can’t all sit around peeling oranges!”
The hallway was dark and warm. Rachel pressed the elevator button to the basement. She waited. She heard bits of fruit settling in the bag, shifting, rotting. Next door was quiet, for once.
Then Rachel heard a soft click, the bolt withdrawing from its slot, and the door opened. In front of the apartment light stood a very short, very old woman. She wore knitted slippers on her feet and soft beige pants, loose around the hips and thighs like she had shrunk within. On top, she wore a large, thick sweater, with bits of flowery collar poking her chin and saggy neck. The woman’s hair was thin and white, pulled back from her face by a pair of glasses that sat on her crown, their strands hanging down like giant ears. Her face was soft, settled into wrinkles, and she had a merry mouth, which smiled upon seeing Rachel.
“Oh, hello! Just taking the trash down? Yes. I need to do that. I am waiting for a delivery, I thought you might be him. Having a piano delivered! First time ever, Ed never allowed it. But now… What fun, I hope. I always wanted to play. I have this money, what to do? What to do. Oh, we are neighbors, won’t you come in? Just about to have tea.”
“I—Yes, I’m Rachel. You live there?”
“I live here, of course. Of course. Emily. Emily Haynes, recently widowed. I just moved in. What a commotion! I lived in my home for forty-six years, but finally, they said it was time. My granddaughter. She was here all week, bless her. Brought her family and her dog. They were most helpful, but I have to say I’m a bit glad to see the back of them. What a commotion! They brought the dog, did I say? But I’m all settled now, except for the piano, so I told them to leave, finally. It’s all very new, but I’m a bit excited, I am! New place … piano…” Emily rubbed her hands in delight, or perhaps to keep them warm. “Oh, won’t you come in? Just put the kettle on. I thought you were the delivery man.”
“I dare say, your trash smells nice, doesn’t it? Oranges? I love oranges, all that lovely vitamin C. No! Not oranges, more like clementines! I know, I’m too old for scents, but I never lost it, you see, the power of smell. God’s little kindness. Clems are my favorite.”
Rachel did not know what to make of this woman, her new neighbor, and paused for a second to consider that the shrill wife, the yelling husband, the hornet children, and the Airedale or Cairn terrier were not her new neighbors, and that this woman, this old, quiet, lovely woman, who had been inside all week without a peep, was. “Forgive me, did you say you were expecting a piano delivery?” Rachel asked with a full voice.
“Yes, quite. I know it’s silly, at my age. Do you play?”
“I’ve always wanted to. I never thought, well… I always felt in a place like this, well, that it would bother the neighbors. I didn’t want the neighbors to hear.”
“Oh, pish. Neighbors. Can’t let that bother you. You must learn on mine, of course. It won’t bother me in the slightest. No hearing, you see. Do come up, once you’ve done with the trash. Only knock hard. Oh no, I’ll just leave the door on the latch. Bring clems!” With that, Emily disappeared back into her apartment, unlatching the door with a snap.
Rachel smiled, contemplatively, and imagined herself learning to play the piano. The elevator dinged and opened, awaiting her.
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