"Three of hearts," the demon says. He's lounging on Joseph's bed, deck of cards in his hands and shirt riding up over his stomach. He glances up, fangs flashing in a bright grin as if he can feel ... [+]
It was a wonder the neighbors didn't complain. And I know it's irrational, maybe even paranoid, but I imagined the old guy upstairs must have heard me crying lately and was mocking my bereavement.
Every night as I lay awake staring at the dark ceiling, wrapped in my cocoon of misery, I heard him laughing in the apartment directly above until dawn. But I mean really laughing, guffawing like a mad man. No loud music, no banging, no mumbling TV or radio, just this old guy laughing all alone, all night long.
"What's so damn funny?" I yelled up at the ceiling one night. I gave up trying to sleep and got dressed and went upstairs to the second floor.
His coarse laughter that had echoed down the stairwell was louder in the hall, and I wondered again why nobody else in the building was complaining, in particular his wife.
Mr. Appleton (I knew his name from the letter box) was still laughing his head off when he answered my hammering on the door.
He was about five feet small, with a shock of gray untidy but healthy-looking hair for an older guy. He had small blue eyes and a face as round as an apple, aptly enough. He looked like somebody's favorite uncle.
Behind him in the lounge, a TV was showing a black-and-white movie that immediately looked familiar.
"You're... disturbing me," I said, almost distracted. I felt disarmed of my anger in the face of this harmless looking man. "Excuse me, but you're keeping me awake."
He blinked at me a couple of times, not for a second losing the amusement in his face, his mouth twisting into a broad, toothy smile.
"You're welcome to join me," he said. "I find it helps." He opened the door wide for me and stood back.
If not for his curious response, I might have gone back downstairs. At any rate, I recognized the movie playing on the TV set.
"Is that Stan Laurel scratching his head?" I asked, intrigued enough to step to the threshold of my neighbor's apartment.
"It is," he replied, nodding happily, and he slapped his thigh and laughed again as he pointed at Stan Laurel who had just caused a catastrophic Rube Goldberg type disaster in a 1930s construction site, the result of which caused Oliver Hardy to be smote on the head by a pot of paint whilst up a decorating ladder. Oliver Hardy dropped to his substantial derriere like a cartoon character and made his famous "at my wit's end with this guy" fourth-wall look to the camera before shooting Stan a disdainful glare.
I found myself explaining. "My Dad was obsessed with these guys. We used to watch them together for years when I was growing up. In fact, we still watched them religiously whenever I went to see him as an adult. My dad died a few weeks ago." That last sentence almost choked me again, the grief constricting my throat and the air in my chest.
"My wife loved them too. Come right in. Sit," he instructed, indicating the sofa in front of the TV set. "I'll fetch you a drink."
He seemed so at ease, and so pleasant and open, that without thinking, I sat down, never taking my eyes off the antics of Laurel and Hardy on-screen. I felt Appleton put a glass of something in my hand, felt his weight upon the sofa as he sat down beside me, felt a sensation I hadn't in ages, a tickling in the back of my throat, a lightness in my chest coming up from my belly. It was laughter bubbling up from the dark well of sorrow trapped down in the pit of my stomach and lodged behind my heart, and before I knew it, I was laughing, laughing with Appleton, crying and laughing in fact, both of us guffawing at the TV so hard that it was a wonder the neighbors didn't complain.
We were laughing in this way for about half an hour when there was a knock at the door. Appleton got up to answer it.
From the sofa, I heard the old man saying "You're welcome to join us. I find it helps."
Gillian Marsh was a librarian from the third floor. Her boyfriend had walked out on her about two weeks before. She joined us on the sofa to watch Laurel and Hardy.
We were all three of us laughing our heads off at the antics on-screen when there was another knock at the door.