A Haunting Refrain


by John Timm

The apartment was small, but for the time being suited my needs. A place to park my briefcase and laptop, watch an hour or so of TV, rest my head for the night. If a new romantic interest came into my life . . . but that seemed to be nowhere on the horizon, so for the moment I contented myself with having four walls and a roof. My books, my CDs, stereo system, artwork and most of the rest of my world remained over a thousand miles away, held hostage in a bitter separation that was grinding slowly, inexorably towards divorce.

The place was old and built to the standards of, I don't know, the 1920s or 30s. Maybe even earlier. The paper thin walls clearly lacked the kind of insulation we've become used to in an era of energy consciousness. On hot days it became unbearable, and I took to running the air conditioner on low speed when I was out. Now that it was fall, edging into winter, it would be cold when I came in at the end of the day. The first order was to turn up the thermostat and wait for the radiator to begin hissing and pinging, delivering much needed warmth to the room.

I'd say the building was about half-occupied. You could tell just by looking at the mailboxes in the entrance foyer. I never bothered to count exactly, but a goodly number of them lacked a name. Mine in particular stood out because at the time it appeared to be the only one on the third floor with a current resident, number 305.

None of this is to suggest the building was in poor repair. Far from it, it was as if I were among the first to enjoy its fine tiled bathrooms and ornate light fixtures, the hand carved woodwork that began at the front entry, continued down each hallway, up the highly varnished stairways, and followed its occupants right into each lodging.

Another tenant moved onto the third floor, number 301, a week or so after me, but I never saw them before tonight, and in fact, might never have seen them at all were it not for the music.

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Like so many other nights of late, I find myself staring at the ceiling, listening to a marvelous performance on violin. It's been going on almost since the day I moved in. It's Mozart. One by one, the sonatas, the divertimenti, duos, trios, quartets.

At times, the music is so loud it seems to be right there in the room with me. I can hear the physical movement of horsehair against string. I swear it. Other times, I must strain to hear the delicate melodies. Regardless, it keeps me immobile as I gaze at the pressed tin ceiling and follow the intricacies of the crown moldings circling the room.

The source of this auditory delight is as of yet unknown. At least not exactly. Either it's coming through the walls from my anonymous third floor neighbor in number 301, or up through the floor from somewhere below. Until now, I've preferred simply to savor it, a welcome relief from another tedious day, another evening of ongoing desolation. Nothing else could provide the same solace, relaxation, comfort as the strains that seem to fill every inch of my abode.

Tonight, for whatever reason, curiosity has finally gotten the better of me. As much as I hate to interrupt the rapture of Mozart's Violin Sonata No. 27 in G Major, I simply must find its source. Still dressed in my uniform of the day, slacks, white shirt, sans only the requisite necktie, I put on a pair of bedroom slippers that await me obediently at the foot of the bed, grab my keys and head out into the hallway.

Not wishing to be detected--what excuse would I give for roaming the hallways?--

the slippers allow me to move about with the desired stealth. First, I pause at the door of the tenant down the hall in number 301, right at the stairwell. Some kind of television sitcom.

Indistinguishable talk, followed by laughter--no doubt canned--followed by more indistinguishable talk. Definitely not the origin of my nightly serenades.

A quick trip down to the second floor draws me no closer to an answer. All is quiet, save for more muffled talk, more TV, the barking of a small dog somehow alert to my unseen presence. I return to the third floor.

Despite the obvious futility, I press my ear to each door up and down the length of the hallway. Predictably, logically, there is no music emanating from any of the apartments.

Except mine. Mozart, his Violin Sonata no. 22 in A Major, perfectly executed, pours forth from number 305. My residence. My beloved Amadeus. I lean against the door in disbelief, unable to move, unsure I really want to know the answer to my quest. Finally, I get up courage, steeled by the conviction that after all this is my apartment and there are no other occupants, and this is some kind of trick my mind has been playing on me what with the stress of the separation and all, and that the music will stop the moment I enter.

Except it doesn't. The music is there, in full force, as if a chamber ensemble has gathered there for my exclusive delight. The second and final movement is ending and I am taken up by its rich fullness, the artistry of the unknown, unseen performers possessing a genius to match that of its composer. I fall onto my bed as if I had no other choice.

Moments later, the music ends, and a voice calls in from the hallway. In my confusion, I've failed to close the door completely. It's a muscular young man in a t-shirt, the type without sleeves, arms lavishly tattooed, a shaved head.

"Can you try to keep it down a little? We just had a baby and it's trying to sleep. That music of yours keeps her awake."

"I'm sorry. I'll do what I can."

"Make it quieter, okay?"

How am I going to explain that I didn't know where the music is coming from, except from my own room, and that I certainly have no control over the volume? But I'm in no position to placate my angry neighbor just now, so I try to buy some time, time to think, time to clear my head, time to figure out a way to deal with my nightly concerts, uninvited as they are, yet so welcome.

"It won't happen again. Sorry."

He turns away, not before giving me a look that provokes more anxiety on my part than any words he could have summoned up.

I lay there, worried there will be an encore performance, followed by another cameo from my brutish neighbor. But thankfully, the concert has ended for now, the curtain drawn, so to speak, and I finally drift off, still wearing my slippers and my uniform of the day.

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It's been six weeks now. Another night, more Mozart, another visit from my neighbor in number 301, who came pounding at my door more or less on schedule.

The threats have been less and less veiled in recent days. Tonight's confrontation was loud, louder still because he was within inches of my face, his face reddened, muscles bulging, fists flexing. It is time to move on.

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I was able to fit everything into the back seat and trunk of my car. Except for my bedding, I haven't unpacked anything else yet. It can wait for another day. I'm tired from moving and exhausted from an ongoing mental ordeal that defies explanation.

The new apartment is modern, with none of the character of the old place--no fancy tiles, no ornate woodwork, just stark white sheetrock from floor to ceiling, and no other embellishment, save for the light switch and a smoke detector high on the wall with a small red light that blinks at regular intervals.

It matters not. As I lie here on my bed, Mozart's Sonata no. 17 in C, source yet unknown, begins to envelop me, consume me, and I entertain myself by tracing imaginary figures on the bare ceiling. Soon, it's the finale, and as if on cue, someone is at my door, pounding.




BIO: A somewhat retired college teacher, John Timm devotes his days to conjuring up quirky scenarios while listening to the greats of classical music and modern jazz at his North Texas home.