A short storyBY BRET LOTT
We are in the kitchen and Janice is making beef stroganoff, tipping in the sour cream from a white plastic container, telling me about her day, about the people who live below us. She says, "And you wouldn't believe the noise. I've never heard a baby cry like that. It's just not natural. It's like the baby's crying was coming up through the floor, like the baby was right there under the couch."
She goes on about the noise.
I am at the counter unwrapping a new flea collar and thinking about how this place was to be our Fresh Start. Our New Beginning. I had told Janice a month ago we had to take the transfer to this small town in order to save my job. She knew I was lying. Still, we pretended it was only a job change. And so we are new in this old apartment, in this town, in this part of the state. We know no one here. We thought this not knowing anyone might help.
The cat lies on the rug, behind Janice. Janice says, "It's just a wonder to me a young couple like that can raise a child. You wonder how it's going to turn out, what it's going to be like as an adult."
She holds a wooden spoon filled with broth out to me. I pretend I do not see this gesture and pull the flea collar taut. I move toward the cat. "Probably very much like its parents," I say.
She holds the spoon out a moment longer, then turns back to the stroganoff.
I am behind her, stroking the cat. The cat seems to know the collar is to go around its neck, and shrinks away from my hand. I hold the cat by its throat, push it to the floor. I am going to put the collar on whether the cat wants it or not.
The cat's eyes, the pupils, dilate until there is no iris left, only large black circles staring at me, and I tighten my grip. I can kill this cat, I think, here and now, and Janice would not know. She is going on about the noise, something about the stereo downstairs again, while I hold the cat.
The night we moved in, only four nights ago, the couple living below us had a party. Janice and I had been moving in all day long and left for dinner around seven. There were already three smashed and rusted pickup trucks parked in front of the house. After dinner we went to a movie, anything to stay clear of a house filled with boxes ready to be emptied, then came home near eleven. There were five trucks, two Jeeps, and a few broken down Plymouths and Chevys parked along the street.
I glanced into their living room window, saw a dozen or so young men, teenagers, sitting around on the floor, in chairs, on the couch, each with empty beer bottles around him, each with a bottle in his lap or hand.
We went to bed, listening to the voices downstairs trying to out-talk one another. Janice said something about the noise, about how difficult it was to sleep, but I just rolled over and dozed off.
At 2:30, however, Janice woke me up. I had already heard the music in my sleep. It was loud. It was right beneath us.
Janice said, "Would you call them up and tell them to turn it down? I can't sleep. I think you should call them."
I lay there with my eyes closed, the music vibrating the floor. "Why don't you?" I said.
She said, "Because I think you should."
I didn't want to start things out by complaining to them, but the sound became louder and louder, and I knew Janice was right, that we should call them.
I'd seen their name on the mailbox next to ours downstairs, got their number from information, and called. As soon as their phone rang, the volume on the stereo went down.
"Hello?" a man answered.
I said, "Hello, this is Larry Hancock upstairs. I don't mean to complain, but it was getting quiet for awhile, and then a few minutes ago you turned the stereo on. Could you turn it down?"
He said, "No biggee, no biggee, no biggee."
I wanted to go on, to talk for a minute so as not to give him the impression I was in the habit of complaining. I said, "What with all our moving in and everything today we -- "
"It's no biggee, no problem," he cut in.
I paused a moment. "All right," I said. "Thanks a lot."
"No biggee," he said.
I went back to the bedroom, said, "I bet you that's their chief form of entertainment. See how many beers you can down and still get up the next morning and go to work."
The apartment below emptied out before I got in bed. I looked out the window and watched them, not one more than eighteen or nineteen years old, climb into their cars and trucks and go tearing off, squealing tires down the street, then running the stop sign.
I said, "That's what they do for fun," and turned to Janice. She was already asleep.
The next morning, I was coming down the outside stairs and saw the man who lived below us. He looked about twenty years old. A few sparse hairs grew on his upper lip, his complexion was bad, and he wore some sort of uniform. He was backing his car, a beat-up Gran Torino, down the driveway, his window rolled down, his head out the window.
I said, "I'm Larry Hancock," and waved at him.
He stopped the car. His eyes were bloodshot. Without looking up at me, he said, "Sorry about last night." He looked around me, as though there were something or someone behind me he was more interested in. "Sometimes we get out of hand, me and some of my buddies from work. No biggee."
"Oh, that's all right," I said. I shifted my briefcase from one hand to the other. "Heading for work?"
"Yeah," he said. "Over at the bottling plant."
"I was transferred here," I said. "We just moved from -- "
"Yeah?" he said, still not looking at me. He put his elbow out the window, looked over his shoulder, and finished backing out. He drove off.
That night, and the next one after that, and the next, they pulled the same thing: everyone over from the bottling plant, everyone drinking and shouting until 2:30, and then the stereo. Each night I called, each night he answered, each time he said, "No biggee, no biggee, no biggee." Each night they emptied out and tore off down the street.
I finally let the cat go, and it takes off into the bathroom.
"What are we going to do if they start up again tonight?" Janice says.
I stand up, the flea collar in my hand. I could have killed the cat without her knowing. The strength I had felt then, clutching the cat's neck -- this is my secret, something only I know. It is a good feeling.
"I'll go down there," I say.
"You'll go down there? And what?" She does not look at me, does not move any part of her body except her wrist as she stirs the stroganoff.
"I'll go down there and tell them to stop. Make them stop. After that, I'll call the police."
"Why don't we just call the police in the first place? Who knows what those hoods will do to you once you're down there."
I go to the counter, put the flea collar down and look through the mail. "Doesn't it tell you something about those punks if every time I call up they empty out of the house?" I say. "If they see me come down there they might just knock it off once and for all, see I mean business. They're just kids."
"Whatever," Janice says. Though she does not move, does not even shrug, I believe we are together in this matter, on the same side, but that she does not agree with my tactics.
At 2:30 the music starts and seems even louder than before. I put on my bathrobe, go to the front door, but it takes more time, more courage than I thought it would before I open the door and go downstairs.
I knock on the door, but the stereo is so loud no one answers. I have to knock again, harder, then again.
Finally the volume goes down, and someone answers the door. It is not the man who lives here, but someone who could pass for his brother: same bad complexion, same half-grown moustache. Then the one I talk to every night comes to the door. He pushes the other away.
He says, "Too loud for you?" This time he is looking me in the eye, and smiling.
"Listen," I say, "either you guys knock it off down here, or I'm calling the police." I glance inside the apartment at the living room and see only one woman among all the boys. His wife, I assume. She is bouncing a wide-awake baby on her knee. The baby is laughing. Everyone is looking at me.
"The police?" he says, and laughs. "Go right ahead. Go right ahead and call the police." The rest of the boys laugh. He leans his head back and lets out another laugh, and I hit him hard in the shoulder. It is all over in a matter of seconds. I am on the floor and he is above me, hitting me in the chest, in the ears, in the face.
The police come. The fight is my fault, everyone in the room claims, and the officer agrees. No one wants to press charges, so Janice helps me back upstairs and into bed.
"I called the police as soon as you went downstairs," she says, "and then when I heard all the noise I came down."
There are a few cuts and bruises on my face, but I will survive. Janice goes to the bathroom to get a wash rag and Band-Aids and some alcohol, and the cat jumps up on the bed.
As if it is the only logical thing to do, I pull the cat to me and try to kill it, remembering the grip I had on it in the kitchen. I hold it by the throat and twist its neck.
It feels frail in my hands, but then its muscles tighten, its pupils dilate again, and it reaches a paw around to the back of my hand, tearing at the skin there. It takes a good, clean bite at my thumb, then claws again at the back of my hand, tearing long, deep furrows. I let it go.
I am holding my hand and looking at it when Janice comes back into the room. I look at her. Her eyes open wide, and she takes a step back, bumping into the bedroom door.
I say, "We have to get out of here. We have to get the hell out of here."
I hope we are together in this matter, too, that we agree we must leave this place. But she says nothing.
Bret Lott is a native of Los Angeles and now lives with his wife and children in Charleston. He recently published How to Get Home, a novella and stories, in which "Fresh Start" is included. He is the author of the novels Jewel, Reed's Beach, A Stranger's House, and The Man Who Owned Vermont, as well as a previous story collection, A Dream of Old Leaves. He teaches writing at the College of Charleston and Vermont College.