The letter was the most maddening thing Donna in 2E had read in her entire life. For one thing, why hadn’t Joyce in 9E spoken to her first? What happened to neighborly discourse? Granted, such courtesy would have done nothing to curtail Donna’s smoking, which was the letter’s aim. But at least it would have been decent. Instead, Joyce in 9E sent the letter to the board, which meant Donna’s husband had seen the letter before she had. She loathed Joyce in 9E for this lack of protocol. Loathed Nicholas, too—or at least, loathed the image of him reading the letter in the leather comfort of his desk chair while she sat in the kitchen, oblivious.
Not the mention the actual text of the letter. Joyce in 9E claimed that as a result of Donna’s smoking, her asthma had worsened to the point of an “Emergency Room visit in an ambulance” and now she “worried for her life.” (It had to be scientifically impossible for cigarette smoke to travel from the kitchen, through the dining room, the hall, the living room, and the foyer, snake down twenty feet of corridor, take a sharp left, ten more feet, veer right, then continue another twenty feet or so to the 9E door, and somehow proceed under said door and into Joyce’s lungs.) Joyce in 9E also noted that smoking was prohibited in Regency House common areas per the association bylaws, even second-hand smoke, which was still smoke, and smoke infringed up her right to “peaceful enjoyment of life” and thus constituted “invasion of privacy” as well as “harassment.”
Donna’s letter-holding hand trembled. Her skin felt hot, particularly the forearms. She lit an ultralight. Donna in 2E had devoted her entire life to avoiding controversy. She’d married young and smart, went to church every Sunday, kept a tidy home. She was a teetotaler, abstaining even from children. She’d been polite to the point of meekness. Overall she’d minded her own business—you could do worse than that for an epitaph. And now this letter had come stealing into her home like a thief. Whatever this was about, it wasn’t asthma. Something must be done.
To soothe her nerves Donna pictured a cloud of smoke manifesting into a hideous clawed monster and chasing Joyce in 9E down the hallway.
She crushed the filter and dialed her husband.
“When were you going to tell me about this letter?”
“Oh. Yes, it’s an absolute gas, isn’t it?”
“That woman is threatening me.”
“Hardly, dear. I suspect she’s rather bored.”
“What does the board think?”
“I believe it’s on the agenda for next week.”
“So they’re taking her seriously.”
“She’s a member of the association. She can’t be simply ignored.”
“She said ‘invasion of privacy.’ She said ‘harassment.’”
“This isn’t the first time she’s lodged a formal complaint, you know.”
“Oh heavens, no—a few months ago she asked us to appeal to the coffee shop about the Friday night sidewalk music. Apparently she had difficulty sleeping with the noise.”
“That’s why they don’t have music anymore?”
“We didn’t follow through with it, of course. Beyond our purview. She took it up with the city. And won, evidently.”
“God, this woman!”
“Ever since Miron passed she seems a little…restless.”
“And this doesn’t—aren’t you outraged?”
“I’m sixty-two years old, Don. Outrage is a younger man’s game. You’re outraged?”
“I’m rather impressed.”
“You don’t seem to be taking this seriously. She accused me of attempted murder, Nicholas! Essentially.”
“Try to calm down, dear, you’re hysterical.”
“This is why she put that obnoxious fan in the hallway, isn’t it?”
“And I am taking this seriously, truly. I simply can’t fathom anything will come of it.”
“Well I’m not going to stop smoking just because it bothers that miserable woman.”
“Don, this is highly unlike you.”
“Did you not read the letter?”
“Of course, but…”
She lit another ultralight. “You’re not helping, Nicholas.”
Joyce in 9E was constantly cooking. The hallway outside her door reeked of cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies and garlic and, the worst, borscht and boiled cabbage and various pickled things (she was a second-generation Soviet bloc immigrant, Ukraine or some such, and during the winter cooked borscht every Sunday). Donna wasn’t much of a cook, not for lack of effort but rather creativity (and, admittedly, talent). But at least she didn’t stink up the hallway day after day.
And just who was eating all these pickles and sweets and borschts? Joyce in 9E had the figure of a Popsicle. It was hard to believe she ate anything at all. There was a grandmotherly aspect to Joyce and her cooking, but Donna had never seen any Joycean rugrats terrorizing the wing. And Joyce was a homebody, practically hermetic since her husband had died. Cooking all that food for naught was wasteful; just think of those kids in Biafra. This wastefulness bothered Donna as much as the smells, almost.
Despite her husband’s pleading and her aversion to gatherings, Donna attended the June board meeting. A chirpy young woman introduced herself as the “unofficial official welcoming committee.” Donna smiled and informed her that she’d lived in 2E for six years. The excitable woman was visibly shaken by this information; Donna gently forgave her.
Joyce in 9E sat in the front row, hands primly folded in her lap, and piously avoided eye contact. Donna watched for a crack in her façade. None, not even when a pot of coffee at the back table was spilled, to much clatter and fright. Posture impeccable, concentration unflinching.
The president began to slog through the minutes. Donna was appalled that her husband tolerated such minutia month after month. From his perch at the board table he looked older somehow, softer in both physique and demeanor. Only once did his gaze drift from the proceedings to offer her a smile, which she dutifully returned.
Eventually (and not a millisecond too soon) the president opened up the meeting to new business. Joyce’s garden-hose arm shot up and she was duly given the floor. She rose and read her letter verbatim. Donna watched the reactions of the board members. Her husband: gentle, comforting neutrality. The president: concentrated concern. The secretary: blank slate, possibly daydreaming.
After Joyce in 9E had finished the letter, she proffered her dastardly proposal: elimination of smoking in individual units.
Donna trembled, not only in her hands but her arms, chest, places she did not believe capable of trembling.
The president solicited comments from the attendees. There were few, mostly of the “say something just to say something” genus. The president suggested the board consult the association’s lawyer and then revisit the matter the next month, the other board members agreed, and then they moved on to the next item. It was very unceremonious.
Donna considered this a victory. Probably Joyce in 9E had hoped some passionate debate would break out, lines would be drawn, voices would escalate. Certainly something more dramatic than this. In truth, Donna had hoped for the same thing. This sorry dispute had aroused some coarse, primordial impulses within her, which simultaneously frightened and thrilled her.
Like, what would happen if, theoretically of course, Donna marched right up to Joyce in 9E and slapped her across the cheek?
What would happen? How would Joyce react? How would Nicholas?
Was Donna capable of such violence?
No. Good Lord, of course not.
Throughout her life, males in her orbit consistently demonstrated a proclivity toward violence, from schoolyard scuffles to “domestic misunderstandings” to African hunting excursions. Were men and women so different? Women simply possessed more dignity and self-control. But were the base tendencies not the same? We’re all human here.
Perhaps violence was designed as a necessary reliever of stress.
Her old Sunday school teacher would have been mortified to hear these thoughts.
Donna felt her face flush, and slipped out of the meeting without waiting for Nicholas.
The board secretary sent an email to the other board members re: the smoking issue, which Nicholas shared with Donna.
Spoke with lawyer. Bylaws, etc. govern here. Assn can do whatever it “collectively” wants, i.e., as long as voting involved. Like any business, Assn can outlaw smoking, weapons, etc. Lawyer thinks harassment angle flimsy. Re: public areas claim. Since Assn voted to eliminate smoking in the common areas, it’s up to Assn to define “common areas,” “smoking,” etc. Basically everything tracks back to bylaws.
PS Walked east wing this morning with Bertie. Fan had been removed. Could not detect any smoke smells. However, it was early a.m., i.e., not “prime” smoking hours. Is claim specific to times of day? Will re-walk this evening.
PSS Bertie did detect tobacco smoke, though “faint.” FWIW she is hyperosmic, i.e., prob. not representative of “typical” resident.
“Does this mean the board is taking that woman seriously?” she asked.
He sighed with practiced affectation. “Dear, I hesitate to say this, but you’ve tried quitting several times in the past few years. Perhaps—”
“This has nothing to do with cigarettes, Nicholas! This has nothing to do with smoking! It has everything to do with being able to do whatever we want to do in the privacy our home. I can’t believe you aren’t outraged by this.”
“I’m simply saying, maybe this is a—”
“Don’t say ‘sign’, Nicholas. For the love of God, don’t say ‘this is a sign.’”
“This is about a sad, angry, miserable old hag.”
“…It’s a delicate position for me, Donna, being on the board and all.”
“The board, the board, the board.”
“I’m sworn to act in the best interest of the association. If I start letting my personal opinions –”
“And you believe it’s in the best interest of the association to start dictating what residents can and can’t do in their homes?”
“I’m not sure the board is viewing this in terms of—”
“This email is almost as bad as the letter. ‘Prime smoking hours’?”
“This is just the way things are done, dear. Don’t let it upset you.”
“I can’t believe you still sit on that silly board, Nicholas, I really can’t.”
The police officer was uncomfortably young: gangly, painfully polite, unable to sprout even nominal fuzz on those glossy sorbet-pink cheeks.
“What exactly is she claiming I did?”
“Ma’am, I just need to get your statement.”
“Well, I can’t possibly give a statement about something if I don’t know what the something is.”
“When is the last time you came in contact with Mrs. Carlson?”
“She’s a miserable old woman. I’m sorry, but it’s true. She’s a miserable old woman. That’s my statement.”
“Ma’am. When is the last time you came in contact with her?”
“I don’t know. The board meeting, I suppose.”
“And what happened at the board meeting?”
“You had no contact with her?”
“You keep saying that word, contact. I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean by it.”
“She mentioned something about smoking.”
“Oh, of course she did. Is that what this is all about? All of a sudden she’s on this crusade to ban smoking in the building. She’s lived here twenty years! A desperate plea for attention, if you ask me.”
“You should quit, you know.”
“Excuse me? What I do in the privacy of—”
“My mother smoked for thirty years. She’s got emphysema now. You should really quit. Ma’am.”
She glared at the officer. She was old enough to be his mother! And to think what her own mother would have said if one of her children chided her for smoking. For anything at all. What happened to respect for your elders?
The world, the whole world, conspiring. A surreal week. Perhaps she was dead. Was this Hell? She had always been skeptical of the good gloomy Catholic vision of Hell as molten dismal Satan-scape. Of Hell as a setting. More terrifying to her was the notion of Hell as exactly like her present life except everything happened beyond her control. Hell as eternal helplessness. This was much scarier than abysmal valleys and infernal hurricanes and boiling ponds. Hell as a taunting reproduction of life.
A week after the officer’s visit, Donna ran into the caretaker on her way out of the building. They exchanged the usual pleasantries, except the caretaker seemed to have developed a case of shifty eyes. This was an ominous sign. Everyone in the association loved the caretaker, how could you not, such an industrious, ubiquitous little fellow. His support could sway the debate over the silly Joyce in 9E issue one way or the other. Finally he said, apropos of nothing, “Folks are worried they’re going to get the cops called on them.”
She laughed. “Is that what’s bothering you?”
“It’s true, then? Miss Joyce called the police?”
Donna realized the caretaker was playing a little game of his own, attempting to tactfully gather the facts first hand rather than rely on the rampant hearsay that was no doubt circulating the association. How very Nicholas of him.
“No, of course not,” she said with a flick of her wrist. “Not on me, at least,” which she punctuated with a twittering laugh and a flutter of the eyes.
The caretaker grimaced and said something about changing a light bulb.
She learned about the vote from a posting in the lobby.
VOTE FREEDOM FROM HARMFUL SMOKE
VOTE PEACEFUL ENJOYMENT OF LIFE
VOTE YES TO BAN SMOKING
AUG 21 BOARD MTG 7 PM IN 4W
Hand written, too, and in pencil. Joyce in 9E’s original letter had been scratched out in crisp cursive, the kind commonly found on the back of old family postcards. The lobby posting was composed of painfully wobbly capitals, which lent it the aesthetic of emotional plea of a deathbed-ridden martyr whose only remaining worldly possession is a nubby pencil. This miserable woman!
She should have anticipated her husband’s lack of forewarning. Always the conciliator, the fence-mender, the domestic diplomat. Apparently, notification of the vote had been circulated in an email intended for the entire association but erroneously sent only to board members; in any case he claimed that he’d assumed she knew. He even offered to show her the email, but she couldn’t bring herself to take him up on it. The whole thing reeked – here was an association that wrangled for eight months on the type of door handles to purchase for the front entrance. Such an expeditious resolution to anything was unprecedented.
“The thing to remember,” Nicholas said, “is that the vote needs a quorum to carry.”
“Well, it’s unlikely.”
“I can’t believe you let it come to this.”
“I’ve done nothing of the sort. You can blame the board all you want, but you mustn’t blame me.”
“You’re on the board, Nicholas.”
“You’ve got to separate the man from the position. We’ve talked about this.”
“Would it be so hard to forget about the damn board and stand up for your wife? This one time?”
“Don,” he said quietly. “That’s unfair.”
Unfair? He didn’t know the definition of the word! Unfair to him meant a simple affront to his inborn and mighty dignity. It was the genteel way of dismissing things deemed beneath him. Unfair had nothing to do with equity, the balancing of the grand scale, because for men of her husband’s ilk, life had been skewed in their favor from the moment they first appeared on this earth. Good fortune was a birthright. Her own life had been no Sisyphean struggle, sure, but she’d made sacrifices. Above all she’d abided, which, while perhaps not heroic in the Greek sense, had been the foundation for their long and generally successful marriage. For all Nicholas’ overtures toward tranquility, the notion that, for the health of their relationship, he should yield any of his ambitions to hers would have been met with such aggressive bewilderment that she had never in thirty-four years mentioned it.
What did he know about unfair?
One afternoon she returned home to find the caretaker slipping a sheet of paper under the neighbors’ door. He literally jumped when he saw her.
“Joyce asked me to distribute these,” he stammered, trying to conceal the papers against his side. “She’s been under the weather.”
Donna could see that the papers were hand-replicas of the lobby posting. “Aren’t you going to leave one for us?”
When nobody at the board meeting could or would look her in the eye, she knew. A rough head count confirmed her suspicions: quorum, indeed. (Et tu, Nicholas?) Joyce brought a pan of seven-layer bars. Passed them out by hand. She could have pre-cut the bars, left a little spatula in the pan. Nobody at a funeral luncheon or pot luck or bake sale stood by a pan of bars and cut individual squares to order. It simply wasn’t done.
Donna cast her vote, out of stubbornness more than anything, but she did not stay to hear the tally.
Her husband’s plan, apparently, was to never mention the smoking ban. There was the delicate matter of the ashtray, a high-rimmed crystal objet d’art procured for a relative song on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. For two days the ashtray sat unused on the kitchen island. She did her smoking on the patio, when Nicholas was out. She realized he fully expected her to violate the ban. She expected herself to violate the ban. But she didn’t.
Likely her husband wanted her to violate the smoking ban, because that would have set into motion a series of events that would accomplish his aims without him doing or saying anything. Joyce in 9E and her sensitive lungs would have immediately informed someone, the board or the caretaker or both, maybe the police. And that someone would have confronted Donna, thus absolving Nicholas of any duty to do the same.
Donna would not grant Nicholas that satisfaction of that outcome.
She knew it wasn’t his fault, the ludicrous smoking vote. She also knew that punishing him as though it was his fault gave her a perverse sense of satisfaction. Anyway things would eventually go back to normal. And perhaps in the process he would experience a little unfairness. For once.
On the third day she moved the crystal ashtray into the hutch.
She had a habit of drafting emails and never sending them. The catharsis lay in the act of writing. It had occurred to her that this was the modern equivalent of diary-keeping. The Drafts folder of her email contained a half-decade of silent frustrations, and anyone who stumbled upon it would have been able to construct a reasonably comprehensive biography of her mid-fifties.
Dear Board Members,
I am writing to inform you of a serious medical matter. I have a severe peanut allergy. Tuesday evening in the hallway I detected a strong cooking odor coming from 9E. My eyes began to water and rashes broke out on my face and arms. It is safe to say peanuts were the origin of this odor. Obviously this was a very serious situation. Since all Regency House residents should be entitled to peaceful enjoyment of life, I believe that no one should be exposed to dangerous allergens. I ask the board to take immediate action to prohibit cooking with these allergens before a more serious incident occurs. Due to the severity of my allergy, this could literally be a matter of life and death. Thank you in advance for addressing this problem.
This email was different, though. She experienced no relief in drafting it. If anything she felt worse. The cursor blinked tauntingly. Her skin crawled, as if she needed to scrub herself clean of the email.
Something must be done.
The moment just after pressing send was the most intoxicating of her entire life.
Ryan Ries lives near St. Paul, Minnesota with his wonderful wife, two adorable daughters, and a rotating cast of animals. He is currently working on a novel about ambition, cooking, money (and the lack thereof), cocaine dealing, the history of the Upper Midwest, civic festivals, and family.