I'm a librarian, not an exorcist. I prefer facts to fiction; analysis over speculation. I don't believe in ghosts. You'd think that in a city where most of the houses are less than a hundred years old and hardly anyone has an attic there'd be a limited ghost population, but Los Angeles has always been a mecca for the paranormal and it's surprising how often people approach my reference desk convinced their realtors didn't make a full disclosure and someone died—or was murdered—in the house they just bought. There's a noise in an upstairs bedroom when no one else is home; a draft even when the windows are closed. I mask my shock at their gullibility, my distaste at their failure to approach a problem rationally. And then I heard the baby cry.
It was a Sunday night, and Barb and I were having dinner in her apartment. We lived next to each other in the Kingsley Arms—the name written in white script on the front of our apartment building—and weekly we met for dinner. One week in her apartment, the next in mine. That night, Barb served a chicken curry over rice. In the middle of the table was an egg plate—one of those platters designed to hold deviled eggs—with assorted toppings in the oval indentations. Cashews, chopped cilantro, raisins, and two types of chutney. Barb collected egg plates and specialized in meals that required garnish.
I looked forward to these weekly meals, a distraction from the Sunday night dreads. A high pitched wail interrupted our meal. The noise stopped momentarily and then started again, shooting up the scale, insistent and undeniable. It sounded human and like it was coming from my apartment.
Barb put down her fork and asked, "Do you have a baby you haven't told me about?"
Other than Harry, my cat, I lived alone. "I picked up a couple at the store last week, but I never know what to do with them once I get them home. I've a half-dozen stashed in the cupboards."
"You might consider feeding them. And you're not supposed to leave them alone."
"Children are so coddled these days. I'm raising them to be independent." We often engaged in this kind of wordplay; it was one of the pleasures of our Sunday evenings.
A piercing cry interrupted our banter. If it was a baby, she had good lungs.
"This is annoying," I said. "I'll go see what's going on."
It was quieter in the hallway, but the volume increased again when I unlocked my door. Inside, everything was the way I'd left it. The smoke alarm in the kitchen was silent. So were the clock radio by my bed and the television in the living room. I opened a window. There were the usual street sounds, but the noise was definitely coming from inside.
Suddenly it stopped. I waited for a minute and returned to Barb's.
"What was it?" she asked.
"No clue. Maybe something is stuck in the walls. It's going to be a problem if it dies in there."
"How cheerful. Let's hope it finds its way out."
After five minutes, the noise started again. We timed our conversation to coincide with the serrated silence, our sentences clipped and stilted.
At a loud cry, I went into her kitchen for two water glasses and handed one to Barb. "Put the rim against the wall. It concentrates the sound waves."
"I thought eavesdropping like this went out with old sitcoms."
"It's the available technology," I said.
"It always amazes me what you know."
"Occupational hazard. I know a lot of useless stuff. Occasionally, it comes in handy."
We each picked up a glass. The sound was loudest along the common wall between our two apartments, barely noticeable on the opposite wall. When it stopped again, we looked at each other and giggled. Two single women, listening to a wall.
The curry was cold by the time we returned to the table. I scooped a handful of cashews from the egg plate and looked around the room. Barb's apartment was a mirror image of mine, but even though she'd moved in six months earlier, it always looked like she was about to bolt. The furniture in the living area consisted of a square wooden table with four ladder back chairs and a sofa bed. A framed Georgia O'Keefe poster of a flower in a cow skull hung behind the table, but otherwise the walls were bare. Whatever decorating frivolity she possessed had been spent on those egg plates.
"I'll get dessert. Do you want tea?" she asked.
She returned from the kitchen with two mugs and a box of fluorescent-colored pastries.
"From the Indian bakery on Pico?"
"I've been wanting an excuse to try them." She tilted her head toward my apartment. "So what do you call the kids in the closet?"
I considered my options. "For girls, I'm partial to old-fashioned names. Laura, Hannah, Rose, and Emily."
"And for the boys?"
"I'll go with the old story-tellers: Mathew, Mark, Luke, John. What about you?"
"Christine or Elizabeth. Spencer or Todd."
We were off then, playing with names. Hannah Elizabeth. Spencer Luke. Mattie Hannah. Most girls have names picked out for their future children. Emily Rose was my favorite. As I watched her that night, I realized that Barb still assumed everything—romance, career, family—was in her future. I was five years older and had learned to keep my expectations lower.
That night, as soon as I switched off my reading light, the crying started again. I got up to investigate and the sound grew louder in the living room. When I was in grade school, a pair of peacocks roosted in the old oak in my grandparent's backyard, escapees from the arboretum in the next town. They made a noise like a woman screaming. If a peacock sounds like a woman in distress, there must be a small, flat animal that sounds like a crying baby. Even in the middle of the city, it's surprising how many wild things persist.
Gently, I hit the walls with the kitchen broom, hoping to encourage whatever was there to move along. I wondered if Barb was up, although I couldn't imagine how anyone could sleep through this racket. We should develop a signal to show when we were awake. We could keep each other company, clean our apartments together, or learn to play Parcheesi. It wasn't good being alone in the middle of the night.
I'd barely fallen back to sleep when my alarm went off. Groggy, I showered and made a quick cup of coffee. On my way to the bus stop, I saw the Korean woman who lived in one of the front apartments downstairs pushing a stroller. Was it her baby we'd heard? I peered inside the stroller at the sleeping child. "Is he teething?" I asked, tapping two fingers against my top lip. The woman rarely spoke, and I wasn't sure how much English she understood.
She took a step closer and asked, "Problem?"
"I've heard your son crying recently. I wondered if he has a tooth coming in."
She shook her head and said, "Happy baby. Good sleeper."
The baby stretched and kicked off his blanket, exposing chubby, sausage-link legs. I yearned to touch his thick hair, tickle his belly, but settled on holding out a finger for him to grab.
There would be no little girl or boy in my future. I lacked the aptitude for family. Every night around the dinner table, my father had peppered me with questions. What had I learned that day? What good deed had I done? Who did I sit with at lunch? My answers only provoked more questions. If I closed the door to my bedroom after school my mother knocked and asked if there was something I wanted to talk about. The problem was mine. My special skill was solitude.
The baby smiled and I asked, "What's his name?"
"Don." I repeated. The baby didn't respond. Probably she spoke to him in her mother tongue, and he didn't recognize the way I pronounced his name.
I glanced around at the other apartments on the block. The weather was warm, and it was possible the sound had drifted through an open window. Some refraction of the soundwave must make it seem like it was coming from inside. Where were the baby's parents? Why hadn't they comforted their child? Didn't they know other people had to work in the morning?
On my lunch hour I bought ear-plugs, a well-spent $2.99, and that night I slept straight through without interruption.
A month later we heard the baby noise again. When Barb arrived for Sunday dinner, she had bags under her eyes. She handed me a bottle of Mencia wine that hinted of female aromatics. "That's how the clerk described it, anyway," she said. "I bought it for the curiosity factor."
I poured us each a glass and took a sip. It tasted like a summer garden party in another century. A governess would be hired to care for the children.
Barb grimaced in response to a knife-sharp cry. "I thought you sent those kids packing."
I tilted my head toward the wall. "They came back. Apparently they like it here." I got up and returned with a pair of spare ear-plugs. "You still hear the noise with these, but it's not as sharp."
She put them in the back pocket of her jeans. "Thanks. I've asked around. No one else hears this."
I was surprised she'd mentioned it to anyone. "That doesn't mean anything. Mrs. Curtis takes her hearing aids out at night, Tom and Teresa keep the television on, and Lance works graveyard. We're the only ones listening."
"Do you think we should tell Anthony?" she asked.
Our landlord was good about replacing light bulbs in the hallway and washers in leaky faucets, although his repairs were often slapdash. But this noise occurred irregularly and mainly at night. "It doesn't seem like the kind of thing he could fix."
"If there is something wrong with the wiring, he'd want to know."
"Bad wiring doesn't scream," I said.
"Okay, Miss Sensible One, what's your explanation?"
That was the trouble. I didn't have a clue.
Barb tapped her nails along the edge of the table. "What if a baby died in one of our apartments? And now she's come back, wanting to make a go of it this time, looking for her parents."
"No ghosts." I made an X with my forearms in front of my chest. "I get that all day long."
"There're ghosts in the library?"
"People looking for them."
"What do you do?"
"Tell them it's not my field and then, depending on my mood, I recommend books on local history or show them how to research the previous owners."
"A librarian ghost buster."
"Hardly. They may want to learn about the ghosts, but most people don't want them to leave. It gives them a certain cachet."
We were sitting at the table in my front room. Behind Barb hung a poster of Willi's Wine Bar, a glass of red wine glittering jewel-like against a dark backdrop. She used to tease me that I splashed my apartment with color while I dressed in shades of beige. I saw no point in calling attention to myself. Now she raised her own glass and said, "Maybe we're not thinking about this the right way. What if it's not the spooky, white sheet type of ghost? Not a person who died, but regrets that haunt us?"
The Kingsley Arms was an apartment building for people in transition. It wasn't the best address, and the apartments needed remodeling. Regrets must line the walls like insulation.
Barb was wearing jeans and a turquoise pullover sweater—a good color on her—with a wide, off-center collar. She'd moved here following a divorce and was still nursing a broken heart when she became fascinated with an old house that once stood on the property. Perhaps she was susceptible to ghosts the way some people are to alcohol.
When she caught me staring, I started naming regrets. "Failed screenplays. Fallen soufflés."
Barb added: "Unscrupulous business partners. Stolen mineral rights."
"Broken engagements. Botched abortions."
"Disappointing daughters." My brothers had been outgoing like my parents. I'd wanted to be left alone. In a happy family, that's called selfish. Oh, I'd participated in the summer ping pong tournaments and winter card games, but I much preferred sitting by myself with a book. When I earned a degree in library science, my parents nodded as if they'd expected as much.
Early the next morning when I heard the baby noise, I rolled over to pick the ear-plugs off my night stand and a pain in my right side startled me alert. I took a deep breath and looked at the clock. It was 5:30, an hour before my alarm was scheduled to go off. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep now. I might as well get up and shower.
When I pulled off my nightgown and looked in the bathroom mirror, I saw that the underside of my right breast was discolored, a fist-shaped stain of yellow edged in blue. It's not uncommon for me to discover black and blue marks on my legs or hips, but I couldn't imagine how I'd run into something hard enough to bruise my breast without noticing. The nipple looked familiar, but the breast no longer seemed to belong to me.
I told myself to remain calm. I'd wait a couple of days and see if the discoloration went away. But that afternoon on my break, almost without realizing what I was doing, I called my internist. An appointment was scheduled for the following day.
On the examination table, arm behind my head, I grimaced when she probed my breast.
"Does that hurt?" she asked.
"Do you have a pet? Have you been gardening?"
I told her about Harry and assured her he didn't have fleas. I lived in an apartment without a garden. I expected her to tell me that the discoloration was unusual, but nothing to worry about. Instead she called her nurse and asked her to schedule a mammogram—tell them to get her in this week. I left with an appointment for the following day.
After the mammogram, my doctor referred me to a surgeon in her office. He recommended a biopsy. He had an opening in his schedule the following week.
"Can we postpone it?" I asked.
He looked up from his clipboard.
"I'll be here. But what do you gain by waiting?"
Time, I thought. Everything was going too fast. "I'm a person who likes to examine her options."
"That's why we do a biopsy."
I stared at his tasseled loafers and wondered if he polished them himself. Okay, I agreed. If all we were doing was research. Research was something that I understood.
When I got home, I left a note on Barb's door. She knocked on mine soon after I heard her arrive home from work.
"Glass of wine?" she asked, holding up a bottle.
"At least one," I said. We sat on the couch and talked. It was the first time we'd spent the evening together that wasn't a Sunday.
"I'll drive you to the hospital."
I said it wasn't necessary, but she insisted. "That's what friends are for. Of course, you're not taking a taxi."
I came home from the hospital with a tube that drained fluid from my breast and a stale smell I didn't recognize as myself. I dozed for a while and when I woke, I heard Barb in the kitchen. I'd often heard her moving around in her own apartment, and now she was moving around in mine. Comforted, I slept again.
On Friday I returned to the surgeon's office to have the tube removed. The lab results confirmed it was chronic mastitis, not cancer. He said the problem usually went away when women had children and asked if that was in my immediate plans.
Now that we were parting company, I felt magnanimous toward him. Still, I said no.
Around that time, I noticed myself segregating women into mothers and the childless. When a young woman approached my reference desk, I imagined her with a baby at home. I searched the faces of the women I saw on the bus, women in their thirties like Barb and me, caught in the limbo of diminishing possibility. I tallied the childless couples I knew and speculated about their stories. Had they decided not to have children? Was there a physical problem? Were they sorry? My own biological clock had always ticked softly. Now it seemed that I hadn't listened.
The following Saturday afternoon I stopped in an antique store near Melrose, looking for a plant stand. I'd bought a spider plant before the surgery and wanted something for it to drape over. There wasn't anything appropriate in the store, most of which I didn't consider antique, but as I was leaving, a wooden rocker in the corner caught my attention. I walked over for a closer look.
"That's a Victorian Shaker." A large man wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt had been watching as I zig-zagged through the store. He pointed out the flowers carved along the chair back and the wooden balls on top of the vertical spindles. It seemed an unlikely mix of styles: the Shakers with their plain elegance and the Victorians with their repressed excess. Still the description was apt.
"It's broken," I said, pointing to the seat.
"I can give you the name of a man who does repairs. Not many people know how to do that work anymore. It's an unusual piece."
We negotiated a price, and he helped me wrestle it into the trunk of my Honda Civic, tying the lid closed with a piece of twine he pulled from his pants pocket. When I got home, I carried the rocker up the back stairs, holding it away from me so that it wouldn't knock against my breast.
The next day I bought a soft mohair throw in shades of purple and draped it over the back of the rocker. That night when Barb came for dinner, she admired the new chair. I hadn't felt like cooking and we were eating Chinese takeout.
"Some time you'll have to help me decorate," she said. "I guess I'm here for a while. How did your follow-up visit go with the surgeon?"
"He suggested a baby."
"The doctor told you to have children?" she asked.
"He realized it's not a treatment I'm ready to pursue."
"Did you tell him about—you know." She gestured toward the wall.
"He's a surgeon, not a shrink," I said. "Besides, you heard the noise, too, and your breasts didn't clog up."
"But I was away last month. You've had more exposure."
"I'm tired of talking about my breasts," I said, although I'd been thinking about breasts and babies all day.
That night when the baby cried, a wail so loud it prevented any possibility of sleep, I followed the noise through the wall until I found the child and brought her home with me. We sat in the rocker with the purple blanket tucked around us. Gradually, I felt her tense body relax as I held her to my chest and rocked.
A few days later I came home to find a lamp on the floor. The bowl of potpourri had been knocked off the coffee table along with the month's magazines. Tassels from the new mohair throw were littered across the carpet. In the kitchen the wastebasket was on its side with garbage scattered across the floor.
It must be Harry, although he'd never done this sort of thing before. I picked up the trash in the kitchen and vacuumed the living room. Before I went to bed, everything was back in its proper place.
But the next morning, I noticed marks beside the bookcase. Had they been there before? Was Harry using the wall as a scratching post? I picked him up from the bed, put his nose against the wall and said a loud no, even while I knew the training was more appropriate for dogs than for cats. Upon closer inspection, the lines weren't scratches. They were childish scribbles, drawn for the pleasure of leaving a mark. A pencil was on the floor beside them.
It took time, but finally I understood. Sometimes the truth is right out in front of you, but you can't see it until you've exhausted the other options. It often takes the false starts to see the simplicity of the true solution.
I made a pork stew with green chilies for Sunday dinner. When Barb arrived, she stood in the doorway, scanning the living room. "You've moved things around again."
I brought her a glass of wine and stood next to her, trying to see the room the way she did. Everything breakable had been moved to the top shelf of the bookcase.
"What's happening? It looks like you've child-proofed the apartment."
I didn't want to tell her, not yet. I hoped, given time, that she'd come to the same conclusion I had. "More like cat-proofed. Harry seems to be going through a second kittenhood."
The marks beside the bookcase caught her attention and she squatted to examine the wall. "Were these always here?"
"They used to be behind the bookcase. I moved it when I got the rocker. Perhaps a child of a previous tenant drew on the wall and it's bleeding through the paint."
"At least you're not going to blame that on your cat. What's going on?"
I picked up Harry and wrapped his paw around a pencil, waving it in the air.
"Stop. You're scaring me."
I couldn't break the news. Not yet. "Come on, let's eat. I made enough stew for a family of eight. You'll have to take some home with you."
"What aren't you telling me?" She didn't move from the doorway.
Even though there were only two of us in the room, I lowered my voice. "The baby," I said. "It's ours. We created it."
She laughed. "Did you miss the sex education class in fifth grade? The part about the man and the woman?"
It had been a mistake to blurt it out like that. She needed time to get used to the idea. God knows, it had taken me weeks to grasp the truth. "You know how women's cycles start to synchronize when they live near each other?"
"What's that have to do with Harry?"
I raised my hands. "I know. That got me off track for a while. The truth is, our pheromones have triggered a baby."
She looked at the wine glass I held in my hand. "Are you still taking those pain killers?"
I resented her suspicions, but kept my voice level. "Don't you see? Our desires have harmonized. That's why we hear the baby and no one else does."
"You're joking, right? There'd be a population explosion if desire caused babies."
I watched her struggle to restore our old equilibrium, but we were past that now. Finally I reached for her hand and said, as gently as I could, "I know this is a lot to take in. I was confused at first, too. With time you'll see how right it is. We don't need to decide everything right now."
She pulled her hand away.
"Think about it this way—I'll have more time to cook. When you get home, dinner will be on the table."
Finally she asked, "What are you proposing?"
I gestured toward the table. "Let's sit down."
"Tell me now."
I spoke quickly, hitting the highlights. "We can stay here at first, keep both of our apartments, although someday we'll probably want a place with a yard. I'll switch my schedule and work evenings and weekends. That way one of us will always be home."
"You're not making sense."
"You'll be a great mom. I'm sure of it."
She pushed past me into the kitchen and set her wine glass on the L-shaped counter. "You're joking, right?"
I followed and faced her across the counter. "Look, I've explained this badly. Let's have dinner. We'll talk about something else. Just promise me you'll think about it."
"There's nothing to think about. We heard a noise that we can't identify. That's all."
After she left, I sat in the rocker and sniffed the sweet baby smell of my daughter's neck.
These days Barb and I are friendly enough when we see each other by the mailboxes, but we no longer get together for meals. Sometimes I hear her moving around next door and wonder what she made for dinner. I miss her, but friends change. It's to be expected. Sunday evenings, I sit on the couch and work the crossword puzzle. I use a pen, filling in one section completely before moving across the page. Before bed, I heat some milk to help me sleep. I don't hear the baby as often as I did before. Of course, she's older and learning to amuse herself. I wouldn't be surprised to wake one morning to find my kitchen table sticky with graham cracker crumbs and strawberry jam. The nights she cries are a comfort to me.
Title image "Behind the Wall" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.