A battered car stopped out in front. Bessie watched from herthird-floor window. An unkempt young man with a suitcase strolled up the cracked sidewalk that led through the weedy yard to the front door of the building.
Apartment 202, just below hers, was empty now that old Mr. Clark was gone. Bessie sighed and pushed her wispy gray hair off her forehead. She'd hoped some nice woman would move in. Grimly, she returned to her vacuuming. Bessie always vacuumed on Fridays.
Saturday was Bessie's day to use the washer and dryer in the basement. She carried her basket down the three flights of stairs, pausing at each landing to give her arthritic knees a rest. Music squawked behind the closed door of 202. The young man must have moved in. Bessie continued down, sadly noticing the fingerprints on the walls, and the dust and paper scraps on the stairs.
While her clothes were washing, Bessie made the long trip upstairs, picking up the waste paper as she went. Then, with her dust mop she slowly made her way to the basement again, dusting each step on the way down. On Monday, she resolved, she would wipe off the fingerprints along the stairway. The new owner of the building ignored the place except on the first of the month!
Legs and back aching, Bessie carried her dry clothes upstairs. Pearl from 104 met her in the hall. "Have you seen the new neighbor?" she whispered.
"Yes, looks like a delinquent to me." Bessie sniffed.
Pearl patted her orange hair. "Permissiveness. That's the problem. I hope he doesn't cause any trouble in the apartment!"
But within a few days a procession of scruffy individuals came and went at all hours. Bessie peered out her window and decided some were girls and some were boys.
Loud music sounded until after midnight every night. And once while Bessie climbed the stairs she heard language that made her feel sick.
She called her friend Pearl. "What can we do about you-know-who?"
"It wouldn't do any good to call the owner. You know that!"
"Oh, Pearl, remember how nice this building was 40 years ago? Remember the lush grass and the flowers? Al would turn over in his grave if he could see it now."
"Yes, so would Paul." Pearl sounded very depressed.
Bessie straightened her shoulders. "Well, as Al used to say, "Don't cry over what you can't change!' "
One afternoon, looking out her window, Bessie was horrified to see beer cans, paper boxes, chicken bones and napkins being tossed out the window of 202. Weary with emotion, she collapsed into her chair.
After a time, Bessie wiped her eyes. Al had always said, "Don't cry over what you can't change." Resolutely, Bessie creaked down the stairs and into the yard. Within half an hour she had picked up all the debris from the party in 202. Then, with a great deal of satisfaction, she slowly dragged herself up the stairs. She could almost hear Al saying proudly, "That's Bessie for you! No job is too tough for her!"
But as the days went by, Bessie's attempts to keep the apartment house neat seemed futile.
"You'll kill yourself," Pearl said. "You're too old to work so hard. And who appreciates it?"
Bessie just gritted her teeth. She wouldn't cry about it. She'd change it. Every day, besides her regular chores, she picked up trash and wiped fingerprints. Except Fridays, of course, her vacuuming day.
Meanwhile, the young man in 202 littered the hallway and yard. Parties continued every night, with loud music and louder language. They usually ended in shouting and cursing.
"Someone should call the police," Pearl said one day after an especially nasty session. "Those people are going to kill each other some night."
"I wouldn't be surprised," Bessie replied. "But if we call the police, those ruffians will take it out on us."
Bessie continued her clean-up campaign, her pent-up anger giving her strength. And she and Pearl agreed that someday apartment 202 would be a scene of violence.
One Thursday Bessie started down the stairs on her way to the store. The door of 202 was open, and the tenant lay on the couch. At first she thought he was dead, but a sudden snore reassured her. She stared with disgust at the shocking condition of the apartment. The litter on the floor had spread to the hallway, too. Beer cans, bottles and paper. And someone had scrawled obscene phrases on the wall, all the way down to the front door.
Compressing her lips tightly, Bessie returned to her apartment. She hated to get off schedule, but for the first time in many years, her Thursday marketing would have to wait for another day.
All day Bessie struggled with garbage bags, mop, rags and detergent until her hands were raw. At one point, the tenant of 202 stood bleary-eyed in his doorway, then closed the door. None of the other tenants appeared in the hall all day.
Finally, in the late afternoon, Bessie stumbled up the stairs to her apartment and fell an her bed, too exhausted to eat.
The bass tones on the stereo downstairs vibrated through Bessie's floor and brought her to semi-consciousness. Music and laughter changed to shouts and threats. Bessie groaned and rolled over. Don't cry over what you can't change, she thought.
The next morning Bessie was wearily preparing tea and toast when she heard a tap at her door. "Bessie, it's me!" Pearl whispered. Bessie opened the door.
"Bessie, I've just been out to get the paper. You should see the mess in the hall! Bottles and garbage everywhere! The new neighbor's door is open, and he's snoring on the couch."
Pearl paused, looking more closely at her friend. "Bessie, why don't you come shopping with me, dear? The fresh air would do you good. You look pale."
"You know today is my vacuuming day, Pearl!"
"But can't you let it go just this once?"
Bessie snorted. "No, I can't!" Her head was throbbing. Her pulse sounded loud in her ears.
Pearl muttered something about "set in your ways," but Bessie closed the door and went to the closet for the vacuum.
An hour and a half later Pearl pounded on Bessie's door, screaming to be heard over the noise of the vacuum. "Bessie! It's horrible! The new neighbor's been killed! Beaten to death! One of his no-good friends, no doubt. Mr. Lang has called the police."
Bessie finishing wiping off Al's hammer and put it in the drawer. "Is that you, Pearl?" She opened the door, then turned off the vacuum cleaner. "You know I can't hear with this machine going!"
Kathleen Techler and her husband live in Pinellas Park. She enjoys family get-togethers with their five children and eight grandchildren. She likes to write, walk, knit, sew, pain and deliver Meals on Wheels. Unlike her character, Bessie, Kathleen has always been very fond of her neighbors.