IT WAS ALMOST FOUR, and Martin still hadn’t heard from Ruby. He had spent his day playing many roles besides a worried father. Rat killer, garbage hauler, courtyard sweeper. But mainly he had been a translator, a go-between for the mostly immigrant crews and the building’s inhabitants. Here is when the men will enter your doorway, 3D, and at this time, 2C, the Romanians may cross your threshold, and uh-huh, 4B, the bedbug dog has been here but not for as long as we expected, Bedbug Scott said the dog was fatigued, was exhausted and traumatized by an especially bad infestation uptown, no, far far uptown, no worries, everything will be fine, sorry, 2A, the exterminator is coming not today but next Friday, right, that’s right, you’ve got it! Booming his voice, loud and boisterous when the crews came in, so they’d know to trust him as one of the guys. Lowering his voice with the tenants so they’d feel respected.
In between saying the things he had to say in the ways he had to say them, Martin checked his phone again and again. He’d sent Ruby messages all afternoon. How was interview you okay hey just message me when you get this let me know.
He had not heard back.
He had heard many, many times from Neilson in 3C about the drain. But zero messages from his daughter. Well, she was an adult. Probably she was fine, and when his heartbeat sped up, he needed to stay locked into what the teacher at his meditation class had called the glistering present moment. Neilson had also attended one of these classes and now, sometimes, he and Martin meditated together.
Still, despite all his attempts at staying present, by midafternoon Martin found himself huddled in the garbage room, checking his phone repeatedly.
Neilson: hey M, r u on yr way drain is still clumped full would really like to shower sometime today if that’s not 2 much 2 ask haha?
Neilson wrote texts the way he probably thought kids Ruby’s age wrote texts. But Ruby’s texts were almost always grammatically correct.
Where are you? Martin texted Ruby. Am very worried.
He needed to do something about the way his shoulders felt, like the entire weight of the building above him was pressing down. The weight of all those tables, all those couches, all those other people and their own worries. But he still had work to do. He texted Neilson back: Be right up.
thanx martin Gr8!1
WHEN NEILSON opened the door for Martin, he said his shower drain was still clogged and he’d had to wash with dirty water pooling around his feet after his run, and while he appreciated the difficulty of Martin’s job, he just couldn’t help but notice that there did seem to be a certain lack of efficiency to the way Martin ran things, he’d been holding back saying these words because they were by this point old friends, but honesty was necessary for friendship, too, right, and Neilson knew efficiency experts and perhaps he could put them in touch with Martin, or the building’s board, or Frank at Sycamore Property Management, because these efficiency experts were really very very good.
Neilson flipped his hair back over his shoulder. Something was going on with him. He was pissier than usual. Martin said, “Efficiency experts. Neat. Okay.”
In the bathroom, Martin placed a paper towel at the side of the tub. The tub had looked dry, but after lying down to remove the ornamental chrome plate that served as the tub’s pop-up stopper handle, Martin realized there was a thin layer of dampness on it. The moisture plastered his shirt to his back. Best not to think of Neilson’s hairy feet in here, right where he was lying.
Once he had removed the chrome plate, he pulled the cotter pin so he could get to the handle to activate the pop-up drain stopper. Then he hauled himself up so he was kneeling in the tub. He removed the handle and now he had the overflow pipe right there. He put the auger in the drain and got the drill motor spinning, down through the overflow, down through the trap. He began fishing out clumps of Neilson’s hair, placing the clumps on the paper towel.
In the other room, he heard Neilson on the phone. His voice was more relaxed than it had been earlier that day, when he’d telephoned Martin about a suspicious heap of blankets in the foyer. Ruby had watched as he’d taken Neilson’s call, watched him go upstairs to deal with the situation.
He was on his back again, reconnecting the ornamental chrome drain operator, trembling a little, when Neilson walked in. Martin sat up in the tub, his elbows jammed against the sides.
“Yuck,” Neilson said, looking at the drain hair. Then: “Martin. Are you okay?”
Martin was coated in sweat that kept dripping itchily down his spine. It made him feel like his actual nerves needed a deep private scratch, the kind people usually reserved for their butts. He was exhausted and he stank, and there was Neilson.
“I’m done here,” Martin said. “We’re all good.”
“Do you want to meditate? Before you go? You look like you could use it.”
Martin, feeling his own nervous heat, nodded.
In the living room, Neilson had set two cushions on the floor, their shams embroidered with spiraling golden thread. When Martin sat down on his cushion, his knees cracked. Neilson sat down, too, his legs folding nimbly and silently, in a way that reminded Martin of the blue heron he’d seen in the park by the boathouse.
“Are you ready to start?” Neilson asked.
Martin closed his eyes. He shouldn’t say anything. He shouldn’t say a word. But here he was, clearing his throat. “Why did you tell me there was nobody in the foyer, Neilson?”
Neilson’s eyes opened.
“This morning,” Martin said. “You called. And you said there was just a bundle of blankets in the foyer.”
“There was also a person.”
“Well,” Neilson said, “I just looked out of the corner of my eye and then I hurried inside. I had to keep my heart rate up for my exercise regimen. The whole thing’s a waste if you aren’t operating at a consistently aerobic pace.”
“So you didn’t look at the blankets long enough to know.”
“To know what?”
“If there was a person under them.”
“It’s not my job to know that.”
Martin looked down at his shoes. He had forgotten to put on his shoe covers when he walked in here. This thing with Ruby was throwing him off his deferential-’n’-distant game.
“Didn’t mean to criticize you,” he said to Neilson. “Let’s meditate.”
“I told some friends about you, you know.” Neilson shifted forward on the cushion. “I said I meditate with my super. They said you were maybe the only meditating super in all of New York!”
Just a dancing bear of a bearded dude, that was Martin! And yet he knew Neilson was sharing this anecdote as a way to make amends. So Martin smiled and said, “I bet I’m not so rare. It’s a big city. Probably there are other supers who meditate.”
“You think so?”
“Some of them are probably in child’s pose under a busted pipe right as we speak.”
Neilson did his polite laugh before closing his eyes again. Martin waited a second. Then he took out his phone. No messages.
“Isn’t it hard to meditate with the phone out?” Neilson asked, eyes open again. “I sure as hell couldn’t do it. Karla was always checking her phone. Drove me nuts. Not why we ended things, of course. Well, not the only reason why. But a distraction. Right? I used to say to her, why do you have to mediate the world like that?”
Martin put the phone back in his pocket.
He envisioned Neilson’s big white feet with dirty shower water pooling around the toes.
Then they both began to meditate in earnest. Martin and Neilson breathed in through the nose. They breathed out through the mouth. They breathed in, and out, and in, and then Neilson intoned, “Let us take a moment now to awaken fully and efficiently in our inward vision, to sit with ourselves as we are and without judgment and with our hearts full of mindful loving-kindness.”
A big-hearted inefficient dancing bear of a bearded dude that Neilson spoke of to his friends. A character in the stories Neilson told at dinner parties.
Wide-eyed, mindfully alert, Martin farted into the golden-threaded cushion.
It was a very quiet and definitely accidental fart—too much gluten today, all those damn rolls—but once it had sallied forth into the container of 3C, once it was too late to call it back, Martin didn’t regret it. He hoped Neilson smelled a slight stink in his nostrils as they flared out mindful inhalation. And then? Maybe Neilson would laugh. When the smell reached his nose. And Martin would laugh. And whatever was curdling up the good and respectful impulses in Martin—that would vanish, leave his mind and heart. If Neilson would only acknowledge the smell Martin had made. If Neilson would only laugh.
But Neilson did not react. Maybe he remembered that this had happened before at the JCC group class. Maybe he was just trying to spare Martin any embarrassment. Except Martin was not embarrassed. He wished Neilson wouldn’t assume he was ashamed that he had farted on the gold-threaded pillow. Had his phone buzzed just now? But okay, he must focus.
Martin allowed himself to sink a little farther into his breath. His heartbeat slowed. Whatever grease might be clogging his arteries was now melting away into lotus-shaped grease droplets, whooooosh, there was his healed heart, a baby-new blood-pumper. Breathe in, breathe out.
He had made a definite smell.
The way Ruby had turned to him this morning, scrunching her nose just a little as she stepped away from the video intercom. He realized she had seen him unceremoniously order that woman out of the foyer. She’d looked at him differently then, not like he was a human she didn’t know, but like he was a human who should know better.
Breathe in, breathe out, just breathe. Ruby should know he always tried to have compassion. After all, everyone suffered! Compassion for all! Even for Caroline, that rich friend of Ruby’s who lived in the penthouse. Caroline’s family, they suffered too. Hell, Caroline’s grandmother had given a lecture or two at the JCC on her experience of suffering. Martin’s parents had said their parents and grandparents never wanted to talk about their time during the pogroms in—where? Somewhere near Kiev, Martin’s dad would say vaguely. He said his parents liked to pretend like they’d fitted in seamlessly in America, and Martin figured out that meant no stories of the past. Stories always had seams, they always had stitches and pieces that didn’t quite connect. Besides, Martin’s dad had said, nobody really cared about their stories. Martin had figured out what that meant, too: His grandparents were poor and everyone around them had some trauma, wherever they had come from. Having some trauma was called being alive. They wouldn’t think to write an article about it and insofar as they gathered, nobody would ask them to give a talk.
His phone had not buzzed. He was pretty sure.
Here was the thing. He could feel compassion for Caroline, who was really just a kid. But feeling compassion for Caroline did not erase these facts: Caroline was having a party tonight. The party upstairs tonight would never be Martin’s party, or Ruby’s party, or Pumpworks Tony’s party. It always would be Caroline’s party and it would be Caroline’s guests vomiting in the lobby and it would be Martin cleaning that vomit up and those were the present-moment facts, no changing them.
But what made today the day those facts felt like shards of glass in Martin’s feet?
If he’d only been wearing the shoe covers when he walked into 3C.
Neilson nickered like a horse. This happened sometimes when Neilson was immersed in his breathing. He seemed to channel some inner equine state and his exhalations went near whinnying. Dude was in the I’m-a-pony-man-galloping-through-the-green-fields-of-my-deeper-consciousness zone while Martin cheated himself out of calmness by thinking about his beleaguered ancestors and working himself into a frothy anger. Neilson’s eyes were still closed, the crepe-thin skin of his eyelids unwrinkled, and Martin closed his eyes again, too, tried to settle back into the now, but now, oh, now he could only envision the smile on Neilson’s face and his mostly wrinkle-free eyelids, so the next time Neilson did the nearing-nirvana nickering thing, Martin answered by farting again into the gold-threaded pillow, less experimentally this time, this fart warm and practically explosive, definitely ranker than the earlier one.
What had gotten into him? Some off- kilter vibrations in the building today? Not good. But it was kind of fun to watch Neilson struggling to keep up his deep breathing, pretending to be so in the moment, like the smell was nothing more than the texture of a present of which he, Neilson, was infinitely accepting. Still, the nose . . . Yep, there it was. A crinkle. A little unconscious crinkling. In the nose and in the eyelids, too. Martin snorted back laughter. Neilson’s eyes opened.
“What is it, Martin?”
“Nothing.” A surprise to hear himself actually giggling. He tried again: “You know when you’re just so profoundly present that you start to laugh?”
Neilson nodded. “Yes,” he said quickly. “Yes, absolutely. I’m glad you got there, to that open, childlike place, my brother.” He stood up and, without another word, opened a window.
A cool draft and the voices of the crew at work in the courtyard today, just starting to wrap up. They called to each other in Spanish. Martin and Neilson listened and did not understand much. The men out there seemed even to be laughing in another language.
“Jesus,” Neilson said. “They’re so loud. Do they not know people here work from home?”
“We’re not working right now.”
“But I will be, Martin. Once you leave, I’ll have to get back to work and instead of listening to the changes in the currency marketplace, I’ll have to listen to all that hollering out there.”
“They’re just goofing a little. The workday’s almost done.”
“Not my workday. I telecommute. My job has no boundaries.”
“Okay,” Martin said. “I understand.”
“Could you talk to them later on? Tell them to keep it down when you’re back in the basement?”
Martin said nothing. His silence caused Neilson to turn from the window and raise an eyebrow. His face resembled a white garbage bag barely cinched closed, near to bursting. He wanted so badly to say something, Neilson did.
“What?” Martin said.
“I’m not sure how to put this.” Neilson folded his arms over his chest. “But were you purposefully farting into the meditation cushion?”
“Yeah, my man.” Martin stood up. “I purposefully farted into your meditation cushion. I was feeling very Zen.”
The cinched look on Neilson’s face got tighter. If Martin stayed here much longer, the garbage in Neilson—whatever trash in him had the sharpest edge—would rupture the bag of his face and everything would erupt at Martin.
“I’m just joking with you,” Martin said quickly. “It was an accident. Too much gluten.”
“Uh-huh,” Neilson said.
“I really like bread. That’s my problem.”
“Right,” Neilson said.
“Yeah. So. I should get back to work myself before it gets too late.” He hoisted up his toolbox and, under Neilson’s stare, left 3C. Behind a door, he could hear 3D’s Yorkies howling.
Adapted from The Party Upstairs by Lee Conell. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.
Lee Conell is the author of the novel The Party Upstairs and the story collection Subcortical. She’s a recipient of a 2020 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award.